Written by: Paul Gleason
(Interview transcribed by Cameron Billon)
To call radio host Ken Michaels one of the world’s foremost authorities on The Beatles is an understatement. Michaels’ passion for John, Paul, George, and Ringo is just as deep as his knowledge of their work.
And I mean all their work – from their earliest recordings as the world’s most promising and inspiring rock’n’roll band to their work as solo artists to the books, movies, remasters of albums, and countless other projects that come out on a seemingly everyday basis.
In fact, Michaels needs two shows. He hosts the radio show Every Little Thing, which you can hear as a live broadcast on Wednesdays from 8:00 until 10:00 PM est on WHNU. www.Fab4Radio.com airs the syndicated one-hour shows. What makes Every Little Thing so special is that that there’s news every week, interviews, and interesting thematic sets that take a look at The Beatles’ catalogue from every angle – everything from songs that have Eric Clapton on them, to specific years and decades, different songwriting collaborations, John and Paul’s best screaming songs, etc.
It was an honor and a thrill to chat with Michaels about The Beatles and the solo careers of the band members, as well as to learn about Every Little Thing and Things We Said Today.
SE: What was the first Beatles song you remember hearing?
KM: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I don’t remember the first moment I heard it, but I was four years old, and it just opened up the floodgates for all the other Beatles music that was played in 1964 on the radio. And I just remember very vividly listening to Top 40 Radio in New York City – and it was just non-stop Beatles. The reason why that happened was that once the Beatles hit it big, then we were playing catch up with the Beatles here in America, and we got to hear all the music from “Love Me Do” on, including all the UK singles like “From Me to You” and “She Loves You,” as well as the first two UK albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles. So we had all that going on simultaneously, and that’s why you had the Top 5 singles in America being occupied by The Beatles. It was an amazing time to listen to the radio. There’s nothing like that now. Nothing has ever been like that since.
SE: What made The Beatles stick out from the rest of what you’d hear back in 1964?
KM: The Beatles albums had lead vocals from all four of them, even though Ringo usually had just one vocal on an album – and the fact that you had all four members of the group playing such a big role in the overall sound. Sure, most of the songs were Lennon-McCartney songs, although early on, you had all the cover versions too. But George had a song here and there, and as The Beatles progressed, he was doing a few more songs per album. They also tried to find a way so that Ringo was represented with a lead vocal. They were the quintessential group.
SE: What do you think was their strongest period as a band?
KM: My favorite albums and my favorite song can change from year to year. Revolver is an absolutely amazing album, and I don’t want to take anything away from Sgt. Pepper because for so many years it was considered the greatest and most important album of all time. But Revolver was the greatest leap The Beatles ever took from one album to another. There’s a stark contrast going from Rubber Soul to Revolver.
SE: What do you think that contrast is?
KM: Rubber Soul had a lot of folk elements and more serious songs. It was about relationships that weren’t working out the way that you know they normally would. They weren’t happy songs. “I’m Looking Through You” is one example of that, where a relationship isn’t going the way one person wants it. Something has changed in the girlfriend, and the relationship is going sour. It was much more serious, intellectual music. But once you got to Revolver, that’s when they really started to branch out, and they were growing in leaps and bounds. For one thing, whereas on Rubber Soul you have “Norwegian Wood,” with George playing the sitar, which was the introduction of Indian instruments on a Beatles record. Then you get to “Love You To” on Revolver. That’s the first full-blown Indian song. And I mean what other song sounds like “Tomorrow Never Knows?”
SE: Oh, nothing, nothing – with the backing tapes that McCartney made. It was completely original. And Lennon’s “She Said She Said”…
KM: Definitely “She Said She Said.” And look at what McCartney was doing on Revolver. He’s got all the classical influences on “Eleanor Rigby,” with an eight-piece string section. And “For No One,” which has a real baroque feel to it. And you’ve got “Got to Get You into My Life,” and that’s got more of a Motown feel to it.
SE: Why do you think people generally have gone away from thinking of Sgt. Pepper as the best Beatles album and have selected Revolver instead?
KM: I think that, due to the rise of grunge in the 1990s, a lot of people turned away from very produced music. Sgt. Pepper is a masterful album; it’s very layered, with a lot of songs. People want leaner production today, and Revolver was just that. Revolver was the step before Sgt. Pepper, without all the production that went in to it. I mean there was production on Revolver, but it was a much leaner, raw album. It was more guitar oriented; you hear more guitar sounds on it. And there may also be a fatigue factor with Sgt. Pepper because it was played so much. You know that doesn’t take away from the fact that Sgt. Pepper is one of the greatest albums if not the greatest.
SE: What do you think of my favorite song – “Strawberry Fields Forever” – which was released as a single in that time period?
KM: That’s one of the most brilliant songs and recordings ever. I had the chance to interview George Martin with a friend of mine many years ago. And I only got a few questions in, but I had to say one thing to him: “I can’t imagine what a song like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ would’ve sounded like if you weren’t the producer.” And he said to me – and I’ll never forget this – “‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was a great song before I had anything to do with it.” When I first heard that, I thought, “You’re being awfully humble here,” but then you stop and think about it. He’s right! The real reason why the Beatles’ catalogue has lasted as long as it has is because they’re great songs first.
KM: Despite what they brought to their music, and they brought a lot to their music, as did George Martin and all the engineers that they worked with, they had great songs first. Everything else was gravy.
SE: I want to transition into talking about the solo music that you play on your show. What are some of your favorite Beatles solo recordings?
KM: My favorite solo Beatle album is actually my favorite album of all time – Living in the Material World by George Harrison. I love the spiritual side of George. And there’s a lot of spiritual music that he’s released throughout his solo career, but I think the songs on Living in the Material World are more personal to him. I think what that album was to him was what Plastic Ono Band was to John in terms of baring his soul to the world.
SE: Why do you think he waited to do that? Lennon did it right away in 1970. Why did George wait a while to bare his soul?
KM: After All things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh, he needed to take a break. In 1972, he wrote a lot of the songs for Living in the Material World, and that came out in 1973. “Be Here Now” reminds me of “Within You Without You” in its message, but it is just George with an acoustic guitar. What he sang in the song was a few words with a powerful message. It’s all about living in the present. He drives home that point. So if you really listen to those words and the words on so many of the songs on that album, the album is really powerful. Do you know the song, “That Is All?”
SE: Please talk about it.
KM: It’s the last song on the album and one of the greatest love songs ever written. In my estimation, it’s his greatest love song next to “Something.” It has one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. I appreciate Living in the Material World because I think the songs meant a lot to George.
SE: What do you think McCartney’s strongest solo album is?
KM: My favorite is Flowers in the Dirt. I love all the songs. I mean when you like every song on an album, that’s kind of rare. Flowers in the Dirt has so much tremendous material, and I think the collaboration with Elvis Costello was fantastic because the lyrics were much more intriguing when he worked with Elvis. “My Brave Face” was a perfect pop song. “That Day Is Done” is another McCartney-Elvis song, and it’s a very dark song, with a gospel feel to it. “Motor of Love” has a Beach Boys’ feel to it, and it’s a beautiful melody. And “Ou Est Le Soleil” is a dance track. When I think of McCartney, I think he’s the most diverse, you know, eclectic artist out there in the world. A lot of people don’t realize this because he’s known so much for his poppy stuff that unless you really study everything that he’s released, you’d be surprised that he’s tackled pretty much every musical genre there is.
SE: Do you think he’s underrated in his eclecticism and willingness to experiment?
KM: Paul doesn’t get the credit because all the weird stuff that The Beatles put out is attributed to John, who was mainly responsible for “I Am the Walrus,” “A Day in the Life” (even though Paul wrote the middle part), and “Revolution #9.” Everybody attributes that to John and certainly Yoko’s influence on John, but Paul was getting into that stuff before John. But he’s not the type of person who would put out “Revolution #9” by himself. Paul would have had a difficult time putting out something like that that was his own creation. He would’ve been way too afraid to go that route, even though privately he probably liked it. But Paul would influence a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows.” He was just as much into that stuff as John was.
I think that Paul is very self-conscious about his own public image, and I think he cares a lot about record sales. He finds his own ways of being creative and mixing stuff like that into his own music, which is more commercial. And there are times where he’s been a lot more experimental and the public hasn’t caught on to it. If you take a look at a lot of the stuff that Paul has done in his solo career, from McCartney and McCartney II where he’s playing all the instruments on both, to stuff like Press to Play, where he’s got a lot of stuff that’s more of an electronic and experimental sound to it. And the stuff that he’s done as The Fireman. Because people aren’t exposed to all this on commercial radio, they don’t know that side of him.
SE: Let’s talk about your radio show and iTunes podcast…
KM: Things We Said Today is an iTunes podcast that I started a couple years ago with Steve Marinucci, who writes for Beatles Examiner, which is the leading news source for Beatles fans on the internet. And I wanted to do a show where I focused on what was happening today in the world of The Beatles because the general public isn’t really aware of 99 percent of what is going on with Paul or Ringo or even Beatles’ group projects. To the majority of the world, The Beatles are nostalgia. And I think that’s a crime, because Paul and Ringo have been more active in their early 70s than a lot of people are in their 20s and 30s.
Paul just recorded a song that he wrote for Destiny, the video game. And he’s composed 50 minutes of music for the game, which is somehow going to be released. He’s got the remasters for Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound coming out in November. He’s touring roughly 25-to-30 shows a year. He recently had a bad virus, which prevented him from doing shows in Japan and South Korea. But even while he was sick, he composed two instrumentals. He’s written music for his next album. He also has an animated film that is likely going to come out next year called High in the Clouds, which is based on a children’s story which came out about 10 years ago in book form. So he’s anything but a nostalgia act. I don’t know anyone who has so many things in the fire going on at the same time as Paul McCartney.
SE: What else does Things We Said Today cover?
KM: It’s not just about Paul and Ringo. There is news every single week about The Beatles, if you look for it. For example, “The Beatles Live” project, which is something that will very likely come out next year. Ron Howard is behind it, and it all involves people submitting footage of seeing The Beatles in concert that has never been released before. It’s taking a look at their history as a live act. You never know when Let It Be will come out on DVD. In the past year, the Capitol albums box set came out. You have a flood of books. There are so many books that have come out on The Beatles, like the first volume of The Beatles’ biography called Tune In by Mark Lewisohn was the most revelatory book I’ve ever read on The Beatles.
SE: Tell me about your radio show, Every Little Thing.
KM: I’ve been doing this now since 1982. I started doing my Beatles show on college radio at the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. Then from there, I took the show to a rock station in New Jersey, WDHA, where it ran for 10 years, and even in those early years, I was developing so many unique elements-all kinds of music thematic sets aimed at both a casual and hardcore fan. And really, the entire musical catalog of the Beatles shouldn’t be restricted to just their group and solo-recordings. There are side projects- that’s songs the Beatles wrote, performed on, or produced for other artists. And I also occasionally play cover versions, tribute records, artists on their Apple label, and music from family members. As I said, there’s news every week, and many kinds of Beatles trivia and games mixed in, in which listeners can win some of the latest Beatles products—CD’s, DVD’s, books, etc. I intentionally mix easy and difficult trivia to appeal to different levels of fans. I believe the more reasons you give listeners to tune in, they will. But the most important aspect of the show is that all the music-group and solo-is mixed together and treated as one. You can bounce around from songs and albums that span well over 50 years, and there’s now over 100 albums to pick from, so the music doesn’t get repetitious. This is probably the biggest difference between me and just about anybody else that does the Beatles’ program on the radio – I look at the group and solo catalogue as one catalogue together. I don’t really separate the two. It’s all one long continuous body of work to me.
SE: So in a way it’s like the group never broke up…
KM: George Martin said that the genius of The Beatles was in their songs. It makes you realize there are two different angles when looking at The Beatles. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a John Lennon song first and a Beatles’ recording second. “Mind Games” is a John Lennon song first, with other musicians surrounding John. There’s no doubt about it that the Beatles as a group had magic, and they had chemistry. No one will ever deny that, but I look at all the songs as belonging to the songwriter first. But, at the same time, what The Beatles contributed as a group to their own songs also made the songs more incredible and more exciting to listen to.
SE: You mention John’s song, “Mind Games.” Let’s discuss his solo work. Do you think that Plastic Ono Band is his strongest solo record?
KM: I can understand why artistically people would say that. It’s not the album that I listen to the most because it’s a very tough album to listen to. The subject matter is courageous, and I love hearing John’s screaming voice on “Mother” and “Well Well Well.” Those are amazing songs vocally. And think about how much courage it took for him to write a song like “God.” But I happen to really love the whole “lost weekend” period the most. I really love the Mind Games album a lot. It’s a very overlooked album in John’s solo career. Every song is a good song, and I think that besides “Mind Games,” most people don’t know of the other songs on the album. And they’re all really strong. “Out the Blue” is one of the greatest of his love songs in his solo career, and Walls and Bridges was a great album too. I think he was consistently strong throughout his solo career. I love his stuff from Sometime in New York City. There’s very little that John did in his solo career that I didn’t care for.
SE: What would you like the people to learn from this interview?
KM: There’s so much out there on the Beatles to learn, and it’s endless. I always remember someone saying to me that the great thing about listening to a Motown record was that you could listen to it a thousand times and still after all that, hear something you’ve never heard before. I can say the same thing ten times as much with The Beatles, especially when you hear versions of songs or versions that leak out and you’ll hear Paul’s bass line on “Hey Bulldog,” and it’s like, “What a wicked bass line!” It makes you appreciate how much they all brought to each other’s music. At the same time, like I said, without songwriters, you wouldn’t have had that music to begin with. So, on the one hand, I think the world of them as a group. I don’t think there’s ever been a better group. But, at the same time, I’m also grateful that we have the solo careers, because we have so much more music that came out of them than if they had stayed together. One of the benefits we have from The Beatles’ breakup is we got so much more music out of George and Ringo than we ever would have if they stayed together. People should try to take the time and explore what The Beatles have done on their own, and I think they’d be shocked at how much great music poured out of them. You know, all the work that I do, whether it’s through Every Little Thing or Things We Said Today, is to say that the great music didn’t stop in 1970. It continues to this day. So, you know, take a dive. You’ll be fascinated by so much music, regardless of what song, what album, decade – there’s so much to discover, and there’s nothing more amazing than that!