Derek Taylor got as close to The Beatles’ flame as you could get.
Convinced he’d seen the future during a 1963 performance by the band that he’d been sent to review, the reporter became their press agent, and later, after a stint in Los Angeles working with the Beach Boys, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and his beloved Byrds, Taylor returned to the fold to lend his expertise, flair, and cool wit to The Beatles’ Apple adventure.
Taylor was there, in the room, during many of the key moments in the band’s career, as well as during the ultimate demise, a position that earned him the undying love and friendship of each of the former Fabs, as well as a starring turn – along with producer George Martin and Apple major domo Neill Aspinall as the only non-Beatles featured – in The Beatles Anthology documentary in 1995, before his untimely passing in 1997.
Fittingly, Taylor’s three memoirs are chock full of the type of details only those with his proximity could recall. The first, As Time Goes By, has just been reissued, and it’s a must read for any fan of the band. Written when The Beatles’ legend was at its lowest ebb, along with Richard DiLello’s The Longest Cocktail Party, it’s one of the best books about the band, and set the template for the many less worthy efforts by insiders – not to mention less-than-insiders – that would follow, and line the bookshelves of stores and amateur historians for many years to come.
Jon Savage, an excellent author and rock and roll historian in his own right, recently spearheaded the long-gestating republication of As Time Goes By, and contributed a superb introduction that not only sets the time and place, but makes the case that if it were only Taylor’s amazing gift with words, he’d deserve a rightful place as a significant player in The Beatles’ story. Of course, As Time Goes By proves that there are so many more reasons.
He recently sat down with Rock Cellar for a wide-ranging conversation about Taylor, The Beatles, and how important As Time Goes By remains, all these years later.
Rock Cellar: Let’s start with an easy question: Did you know Derek Taylor personally?
Jon Savage: Yes. The first time I met him was in late-1996, at the Q Awards. It was the year of Oasis, so it was kind of bad behavior time. Everybody was a bit rambunctious, and I was at a table with Derek and Neil Tennant and Johnny Marr. And so we were having a good old fashioned pop bitchfest. It was a great table to be at.
We were just having a great time, because we were doing that poppy award show thing of ‘yes, they look great,’ ‘look at what they’re wearing,’ all that sort of thing. And Derek was a master of this; just as petty as everyone else. He was great fun. And there was an award for the Anthology album series, but George Martin wasn’t there, so Peter Blake accepted and used the occasion to moan about the fact that he’d only been paid 200 pounds for the Sgt. Pepper cover, and he went on and on about it, and in the middle of all of this Derek very loudly and very precisely said, ‘Oh, shut up, you pompous cunt!’ And it was great!
Rock Cellar: You loved him instantly, I have to imagine?
Jon Savage: Of course! Anyway, after that I was working on a documentary and needed Derek’s input, so we kept in touch. And then in 1997 I went to his funeral, after which I was chanced with a task of getting his books back in print. And it’s taken twenty years, but it’s finally happened.
Rock Cellar: So you got involved after Derek died. What jumped out at you about As Time Goes By, as opposed to other books about The Beatles and that time?
Jon Savage: It was one of the first Beatles books, along with The Longest Cocktail Party, and it was certainly just at that moment when you had The Beatles break up, and then the John Lennon interview with Rolling Stone, where he tore the whole story down, so it was all pretty unpleasant. But then, of course, The Beatles’ reputation started to revive fairly quickly because of the Red and Blue albums, which were just a fantastic repackaging for the new era, and so that, along with Derek’s book, were just a fresh reminder of how wonderful The Beatles were.
But really I just thought Derek was a wonderful writer. It’s as simple as that. I like the way he could tell stories through himself and, particularly going to the Bahamas in early ‘65 to interview them on the set of Help!, not long after he’d been working for them, at the height of Beatlemania, and how they had a hard time reconciling his presence there. The way he wrote about that, I think, was just wonderful.
Rock Cellar: It’s a most engaging, present, unique voice, and it makes you love him instantly. It’s a self-deprecating tone, and he’s not afraid to tell the tales, yet he does it with love. Talk to me a little bit about Derek’s writing style, because it is very unusual for people who are only familiar with sort of straightforward reportage.
Jon Savage: I think what’s amazing about his style is that he’s always aware that he’s in their circle. He never tried to be above the action, or beside the action, looking down or looking up. He’s in there and he made great value of that. He was the only person who was involved in the action to write about The Beatles.
He was their press officer, after being Brian Epstein’s personal assistant, and he went on world tour with them during peak Beatlemania. He was right there on tour with them through Holland and Australia and then America, which of course anyone can tell you was complete madness. But even in the middle of this he was still able to keep enough distance to be able to report on it and give a sense of its significance while it was happening, but also from the inside.
So this actually makes him unique in all The Beatles’ writers. And so his testimony, which is beautifully and carefully expressed, because he was a newspaperman, and so he was used to writing short sentences, is a much better than Philip Norman’s, who tends to repeat various things, or Tony Barrett, or really a lot of people who have written about The Beatles. And besides, he was writing about The Beatles as it happened.
But more than anything, he is unique in that aspect, and also because, apart from Neil Aspinall and George Martin and Brian Epstein, Derek Taylor was at the center of the story.
Rock Cellar: But he had a blow-up with Brian at the end of the 1964 world tour, and he reinvented himself in the Los Angeles as a PR man to the stars – even though he wore many hats; he wasn’t just doing PR, he was writing articles about his bands, and shepherding their careers in many ways – but what happened with Brian, and how did he end up in LA?
Jon Savage: Well, they were all on pills, weren’t they? And it had been a ridiculously stressful tour. Brian was on pills, Derek was on pills, and they don’t make you behave in a very stable manor. And they had a furious row about who was going in a limousine – which just shows you how serious it was — and they made up the next morning, but Derek had just had enough. He had a family – a wife and two or three children by then — and I think that was the key point.
Brian didn’t have a wife and family, so he just worked and worked. But I think Derek just found it all too much, really, in the short-term. And so he went to New York and eventually parlayed his Beatle connection – which was significant, because they were the biggest things in the world then – into being a freelance everything. And he takes on Paul Revere and the Beach Boys and, of course, The Byrds, whom he really loved. He took them on without a fee. He probably saw a small percentage of their takings, so he actually did very well, because they became the number one act after The Beatles.
And because of Derek’s connection with The Beatles, they got to meet The Beatles and got The Beatles’ seal of approval, and you can’t really beat that in 1965.
Rock Cellar: He famously ends up back at in the U.K. at one of Brian’s parties, where they all do acid. And Derek trips with John and it changes his life, again. It was certainly in many ways the beginning of him coming back into the fold. What was going on with him and why do you think he ended up back with The Beatles and at Apple?
Jon Savage: Well, he was an independent PR in LA for two years, and not only did he rep The Byrds, he really hoisted the Beach Boys up around the time of “Good Vibrations.” But there’s this wonderful story of him, where he’s going for a ride with Brian Wilson, in John Lennon’s Rolls Royce, I think, and Brian Wilson was obsessed with The Beatles, and he turned around to Derek and asked, ‘Well, The Beatles are always going to be number one for you, aren’t they?’ Expecting the answer to be, ‘No.’ And Derek said, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry they are.’
And that was sort of the end of it. But when The Beatles went down to LA in ‘65 they bumped into The Byrds, and so they were still seeing Derek when they were touring America, and in ’66, as well, they were still in touch. There were letters from George Harrison to him in ’66, because they were very close. And he was also involved in the Monterey Pop Festival, which was obviously the hottest thing in the early summer of ’67, and he got The Beatles’ seal of approval for that. So he was a good conduit. And he famously accompanied George Harrison when George visited Haight-Ashbury, which was a disastrous visit.
So I think he was still kind of in the fold. So when The Beatles were beginning to really get Apple together as an organization — as a record company — in April of ‘ 68, he was obviously who they turned to, and it was natural for him to go back to working for them.
Rock Cellar: That period is the bulk of the book. He’s such a great storyteller. They way he writes about Apple is really fascinating. It’s from the inside out it. And there’s very little pretense to it. He’s certainly careful about the way he talks about The Beatles, but it feels very real and very authentic.
Jon Savage: In a way the Apple part of the book is like an exorcism. I think he found it very stressful. There is one chapter of the book where he just writes in a stream-of-consciousness, almost, and it’s pretty intense. You know, The Beatles were hot in ’68. They had “Hey Jude,” they had The Beatles double album. So they’re fantastically popular, and also they were making music all the time, particularly in late ’68 and ’69. So he was really, really busy, and it was the whole thing all over again, with the madness, and the drinking and smoking weed, and also all the volunteers coming in all the time to this kind of utopianism.
The whole thing was madness, really, and I think he wrote it down, probably, just a need to kind of get it down as a record and to keep him so sane as well. I didn’t have any conversations with him about it, but I know he was always taking notes, so I think it’s a pretty good record of what it was like for him at Apple.
Rock Cellar: What do you think Derek would make of the fact that The Beatles are as big now to so many people, and are still so important and significant and are regarded so highly? He was living in the moment – in the eye of the hurricane – but basically what he said in 1964 in the liner notes for Beatles For Sale came true.
Jon Savage: I think he’d say, ‘Well, I told you so, didn’t I?’ I think he’d be really pleased, not for himself, but for them, that what they did is still recognized, deservedly. I mean, what The Beatles do, really, it’s all about America winning the Second World War. It’s all about democratic consumerism. It’s all about this idea of consumerism — buying things in a way that creates a real mass culture — and the full express of desires. The Beatles epitomize that, and that’s why the reputation and their music will always last.
Rock Cellar: For people who are coming to the Derek Taylor and As Time Goes By not knowing what to expect, what would you want them to take away from this and to know about Derek and the book?
Jon Savage: Well, you’ve got an insider’s view of The Beatles, and it’s expressed with humor and brevity and wit, and there’s a certain amount of distance in there as well, so you get a real bird’s eye view of The Beatles unlike anything else that’s available.