When Eric Clapton almost became a Beatle
Michael Lindsay-Hogg was flattered. And nervous. Mostly, he was thrilled. It wasn’t every day that the Beatles asked for your help.
It was 1966, the New York City native was 25 years old, and the Fab Four asked him to direct the videos for “Paperback Writer” and its B-side, “Rain.” They liked what he made for them, and he went on to helm the short films for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution.”
In January 1969 the Beatles came calling once again, asking Lindsay-Hogg to direct their attempt at a TV special, a film of the recording sessions for Let It Be. Little did Linsday-Hogg, or the band for that matter, know that this would be effectively be a documentation of the band’s demise. The footage caught squabbling and plenty of icy stares. It also featured a live performance on the roof of Apple’s headquarters on January 30, 1969. It was the band’s last concert.
Many of Lindsay-Hogg’s videos are included in a new box set called 1+, which consists of all 27 of the Beatles’ number-one singles and videos to accompany each. Some of the videos, such as Lindsay-Hogg’s, are professionally produced. Many of the early hits simply feature performances during live shows.
Lindsay-Hogg, now 75, is an ideal interview subject: affable, engaging—and a raconteur with a terrific memory.
Esquire: What about filming the music of the Beatles has stood out all these later?
Michael Lindsay-Hogg: I didn’t know, when we made it, that it would still be around and there would be a place to show it 50 years later. A lot of the early rock and roll work was erased. My own show, Ready! Steady! Go!, was the only reason the clips are around is because, I, with my small salary, paid a pound a minute for videos. The company erased videos with the Stones, The Who, Ike and Tina Turner. The company thought, those crazy kids. They thought was a fad.
Did working with the Beatles feel different than working with the huge acts you’d filmed before?
I remember I was working in Ireland as a floor manager—I was 22 or 23—when the first Beatles song came on the radio, and I went, Whew! I thought it was spelled The Beetles. Why didn’t they call themselves The Ants?, I thought. They were funny, rebellious and enchanting—all the things I wanted to be. Working with them was more rarified than even with the Rolling Stones. The Beatles were like the Concorde—flying at a different height than everyone else.
How had the Beatles changed from 1966, when he first worked with them, to 1969, when they were in the early stages of their breakup?
You could tell that there were certain tensions, both evident and unresolved, between the four of them. I could compare it to people who got married when they were 18—and then 10 years later, they were 28. When they stopped touring in ’66, they started to live different lives. They were not as close as physically and emotionally as before. John had Yoko and Paul had Linda. They were four different people. When I met them for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” it was like they were four sides of a building and you weren’t going to breach those walls. By ’68 and ’69, they weren’t writing songs together anymore. They had reached a certain point in their lives. Yoko was not the issue. They wanted to go in different directions.
One of the great footnotes of Beatles lore was how George Harrison left the group during the filming of Let It Be and John promptly suggested recruiting Eric Clapton to take his place.
You could tell there was a slight degree more of tension between the two of them. George didn’t want to make a TV special. He just wanted to do the album. One day we went to have lunch and George came up and said, at the head of the table, “See you round the clubs”—and left! I was there when John mentioned Clapton—but that wasn’t going to happen. Would Eric have become a Beatle? No. Paul didn’t want to go there. He didn’t want them to break up. Then George came back.
Was a break-up inevitable?
They could have gone to rock-n-roll group counselors and talked it through [laughter], but they had reached a point of departure. It got ugly.
It has been years since the film Let It Be has been shown in the U.S. Will we ever see it again?
Apple has the definitive word in this. Let It Be is ready to go but it probably will be 18 months at the earliest. My hope is that it will be the original movie, which looks and sounds great.
The last scene of the film is exciting and poignant — showing the Beatles’ final performance of all time, up on the Apple roof. They could still really play, even amid the madness of an unorthodox concert.
What was more madness for me was we planned to do it around 12:30pm; but it wasn’t until 12:20pm that, as a group, they decided to do it. Paul was very enthusiastic. George, Ringo, then John weighed in and said, “Come on. Let’s do it.” We didn’t know it would be the last concert. It was an amazing experience. It was like they were teenagers again in Hamburg and Liverpool, with them thinking, Wow! This is a blast. They were happy. They were together. They were the Beatles.