5 of the ‘fifth Beatles’ — A quick analysis
I’ve recently fallen back in love with The Beatles. I was a huge fan as a kid, and now, after finally sitting down to watch the Get Back documentary, I’m back in love with them. It was nice to see them somewhat human-looking, with normal relationships. It was also nice to see all the strange names and characters surrounding them come to life. Then I got thinking about the whole ‘fifth Beatle’ phenomenon.
The ‘fifth Beatle’ became a bit of a humourous phenomenon. Over the span of The Beatles’ career, there were dozens of them, ranging from pre-fame members, engineers, producers, artists, even entertainers completely separate from the music industry who bared the slightest resemblance.
Here are five of the many fifth Beatles, in no particular order…
Brian Epstein — Papa Beatle
Brian Epstein is the most obvious fifth Beatle. He was their manager from 1962 up until his death in 1967. You could argue that The Beatles' commercial success was mostly down to him.
Brian Epstein was a local record store owner in Liverpool, and they first came into his orbit after seeing them in a copy of ‘Mersey Beat’ a local music magazine. Before meeting with Brian, The Beatles were already paying their dues. They had just completed a residency in Hamburg and worked as a backing band. They also had a strong following in Liverpool in their own right, playing the lunchtime spot at The Cavern Club. Brian first watched them perform in 1961.
Before Brian’s management, The Beatles were a charming but scruffy group. They wore leather jackets, ate snacks, drank, smoked, and swore on stage. Their performances were fun but erratic, stopping and starting songs and constant larking about. They’re things that Beatles fans love watching them do, but they were stopping them from being a commercial success.
So, once they were under Brian’s management, he had them suited up and encouraged them to change their hairstyle from greasy Rock ’n’ Roll pompadours to the fashion-forward mop-tops. Their sound didn’t change much, but their new pristine style paired with their edgy pop (it was edgy for the early sixties okay?) gave them a very unique sort of vibe.
George Martin — The Sound Guy
Now that The Beatles had their public image sorted, now they needed a good producer.
George Martin had studied Piano and Oboe at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and went on to work for Parlophone records. Before The Beatles, he had mostly worked in producing records for classical artists, and a few comedy albums.
Most record companies were very unimpressed with the Beatles, and they had been rejected by at least four before meeting with Martin.
He too was mostly unimpressed by The Beatles' music. The drumming (done by original Beatles drummer Pete Best) was thought to be quite poor, and the arrangements for their original songs weren’t quite up to scratch. When he met with the group, he was more impressed by their wit than their musical talent. I guess he saw something that Brian also saw.
George Martins's formal training in music helped tie together all the loose ends of The Beatles' magical self-taught chaos. He helped them find the musical language to explain the sounds and styles that they were going for. Also, the Beatles' more musically complex songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘I am the Walrus’ wouldn’t have been possible without a person like him.
Magic Alex — When Things Got Weird
Magic Alex is a strange character from the world of sixties rock and roll, and not many would really consider him a fifth Beatle. He was an eccentric engineer and inventor who was hired by The Beatles to work in Apple Electronics. He probably would have been considered a true ‘fifth’ Beatle if any of his inventions were useful, but his strange gadgets tended to only spark a psychedelic-fuelled fascination in John Lennon. His big project of creating the perfect recording studio failed miserably, as seen in Get Back. So why am I including him?
Well, because I think his weirdness and relation to The Beatles says a lot about the latter half of the Beatles' career as a group. I include him is because for some reason The Beatles liked having him around. Perhaps it was because he was eccentric and thought outside the box. His ideas for inventions, like a huge sun flying over the city, and forcefields to protect the band from screaming crowds. To me it represents how strange and experimental The Beatles became, maybe they were cool with having this guy around because it helped them think outside the box
While he offered little talent to the group, he did a good job of making them seem a little bit stranger.
Billy Preston — The almost official fifth
Billy Preston was the guy who probably came closest to becoming an official ‘fifth Beatle’. He was an American musician and a top session keyboardist. They first met when Preston was in Little Richards touring band, and The Beatles were his opening act in Liverpool.
He is the only person who received co-performing credits on a Beatles song. (on the ‘get back’ single), he played on the albums ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’, and also performed with the Beatles during their rooftop concert in 1969.
It may just be because of the way the Get Back documentary was edited, but everything was a bit of a shambles until Billy Preston turned up. They were trying to put together a live album, and each song needed a piano. All the Beatles could play a bit of piano, but the songs required an extra pair of hands so they sounded good live. Everything was very stop-start with constant calls of ‘we need someone on the piano.’
Enter Billy Preston…
Not only did Billy Preston’s talent bring gorgeous, soulful depth to The Beatles sound, I can’t help but think that his presence in the recording sessions encouraged the band to focus and work together, instead of all the constant bickering that seemed to be happening before he dropped in to say ‘hi’.
Yoko Ono — The Artist
Ooh, a controversial one.
Whether you love or hate her, Yoko Ono’s influence on The Beatles simply cannot be denied.
Yoko Ono is a Japanese artist, famous for her Avant-Garde style, and her intense romance with John Lennon. Her role in the Beatles' final years has been heavily mythologised over the years, with some viewing her as a counter-cultural muse, and others demonising her as an evil witch who drove a wedge between Lennon and his collaborators.
Yoko Ono encouraged John Lennon’s artistic and poetic voice and pushed him to break rules, which led to John pushing the other members to get a little wilder. Some of the most well-known and well-loved songs (Hey Jude, Let it be, Come Together) were written around the time Yoko started sitting in on sessions. Coincidence? Perhaps, but a muse is a very powerful thing, and Yoko was the muse for at least a quarter of the band.
Moreover, and I’m sorry to refer back to Get Back, but Paul McCartney seemed to be having a great time jamming to John and Yoko’s crazy avant-garde sounds (cue primal scream).
So, to conclude, it takes a village. Even if you are the most popular band of your day, and the most legendary band of the 20th century, you certainly can’t do it alone. It took four people to become the greatest band in Liverpool, but it took countless other collaborators to become the greatest band of all time.