On International Podcast Day, the ‘One Sweet Dream: A Beatles Podcast’ host takes us deep inside the world of Lennon/McCartney
With official anniversary album re-releases, the Get Back documentary and a constant stream of new books, it feels like we’ve been experiencing the next stage in Beatlemania over the last few years. Adding interesting new voices to the conversation are the many podcasts examining the stories, personal lives and music of the Fab Four. A fertile ground for challenging accepted Beatles narratives, it’s easy to invest hundreds of hours getting lost inside this Fab universe.
One of the very best examples is One Sweet Dream: A Beatles Podcast. Together with her guests, Diana Erickson draws from years of meticulous research (and decades of fandom) to analyse the band’s story through a new lens. Using song analysis as a central part of its armoury, listeners gain a deeper understanding of the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, their way of communicating with each other, and the factors that eventually led to the end of the dream. It’s a fascinating listen that challenges long-established opinions about John, Paul, George and Ringo without ever forgetting to celebrate what makes The Beatles so special, their music.
Always happy to discuss all things Beatles, we recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Erickson for a long and winding, and thoroughly absorbing, chat…
Where does your love of The Beatles come from?
“I recall singing Beatles music in a school musical, a Rock Of Ages type thing, and I adored them then, but when I really fell in love with them was when I received the Red and Blue albums for Christmas when I was 13. About three songs into the Red Album, and boom, I was smitten. My brother and I both fell in love with them. Our home was a non-stop Beatles and Dylan fest for a while.”
Was it just those two, The Beatles and Dylan?
“They opened up everything else for me. I went through a Stones period, Simon & Garfunkel, Donovan, and the Doors, but nothing rivalled my love for The Beatles. I read everything about them, listened to everything, but then eventually got into other music and left them for long stretches. I would take extended breaks from The Beatles but never lost my deep love for them. And their story was always compelling. If there were an article or a new book, I would skim it or read it. Probably normal stuff for a Beatles fan.”
When did you come back to them and then decide to start doing a show about them?
“There were a few things that re-ignited my interest in The Beatles. I recall picking up a copy of The Atlantic, which featured Lennon and McCartney on the cover with a piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of the book Powers Of Two, which explores the power of creative pairs. Lennon and McCartney were one of the pairs he profiled in his book. What I liked about it was it introduced some fresh thinking into the world of The Beatles, even if I didn’t agree with all of his takes. I also appreciated his focus on the Lennon/McCartney partnership because this aspect has been under-investigated. Which is odd, because the axis of Lennon and McCartney is so crucial to The Beatles.
“So around that time, I started paying attention, and there seemed to be much more information available to the public. Some big collectors were sharing their collections online, making old rare interviews available to all; interviews and anecdotes that perhaps authors hadn’t had access to, which meant that enthusiasts could study things independently. Once I started digging, it was exciting because I realised there was a whole other story there.”
Did you already have a hunch that the story we’ve read for the last 40-50 years was slightly skewed?
“Absolutely. I’d read a tonne of books when I was young, so I understood the main tenets of the story, but even then, I was shocked by the lack of insight and a willingness to try to see things a different way. I would read a book and think, ‘Okay, that again,’ and I was frustrated by the lack of new thinking. There was so much deep mythology that kept repeating. But the biggest problem was that the story just didn’t make sense as a human story. And it frustrated me because I believed there was a much more nuanced, inspiring story to be found.
“The Beatles story is a beautiful one about these exceptional people who loved each other, created magic and changed the world. It is an epic story! It should be exciting. Yet so many books end up being a downer, probably because they end in the breakup period, which is depressing. But I don’t think the Beatles ended there.
“I often refer to this quote from Cynthia Lennon because I think it summarises the problem with how the story has been told. She said the problem was that, ‘An awful lot in the books is factually right but emotionally wrong,’ and that’s how it felt to me. The story was emotionally wrong. These guys were so close, and suddenly John Lennon forgets about them overnight? It just didn’t make sense. As a culture, I think we feel something’s amiss because we continue to be confused about their breakup. If it made sense, we’d stop asking. So I thought the story required investigation and reframing.”
So then, with the podcast, do you see it as your chance to present a different version of those facts with a new emotional narrative?
“Absolutely. That was my goal. But it’s a new emotional narrative built on years of research. We started with research, developed a hypothesis, researched some more, and then built a narrative. It involved timelines and laying out events, considering actions and reactions and playing through countless scenarios. “One of the problems was the lack of rigour. There was so much vagueness in terms of timing, and so many assumptions were baked into the story, so it was a case of having to challenge everything, including my beliefs.”
Do you have an example of that?
“I had to challenge my view that John Lennon was bored of The Beatles and checked out in early 1968. I had been led to believe this, but after a close examination of the interviews Lennon gave to Hunter Davies at the end of 1967, I had to revise my view because, at this time, right before they went to India, he was completely committed to The Beatles. So that led to the question, ‘Well, what happened then?’ Traditionally the story has revolved around John’s disenchantment, and if that wasn’t the issue, then what went wrong? Because a fracture happened fairly quickly after a period of intense closeness in 1967, and it seems to have happened before Yoko Ono entered the scene.
“And that work led to the Breakup Series [done in collaboration with Phoebe Lorde], which is a deep exploration of the breakup of The Beatles. It tells a very different story than the traditional one.”
Was it always the intention to look at the songs and how they fitted into that story? And is it hard not to project significance onto those songs that might not have been intended?
“The songs are incredibly important in analysis. Paul McCartney said if you want to know about him, look to his music. John Lennon said he writes about his life. So the songs are essential. Now obviously, you can never know what they were thinking, but certainly, we can look at the songs’ themes and develop hypotheses. For example, if you look at Paul McCartney’s songs from 1969, it’s like, how many times is the guy going to say goodbye? He writes The End, The Long And Winding Road, Let It Be, The Long Medley… He is wrapping things up. Now I don’t think he wanted The Beatles to end, but I think he was emotionally processing it, whereas John wasn’t.
“The premise of the Breakup Series is that John is playing a game which resulted in a lot of misunderstanding between them. But their songs give a sense of what they are going through. It’s shocking to me how often the songs are completely ignored in analysis—perhaps it’s out of fear of presuming too much. But they are integral to the story. John Lennon told us that this is how the Beatles communicate, through music. With each other and with the world.”
Can you talk us through the art of analysing those songs?
“You mean specifically song analysis in connection to the narrative? Because there are so many different ways to analyse a song. But in that regard, I often develop working hypotheses about songs based on what I know was going on at the time and the dynamics in the band. Sometimes I just present my view of what the song may be about, given the context, but that’s all it is, my view. I trust my instincts to a certain extent, but I always try to find supporting points to reinforce my theory.”
Is there a song you can use as an example of that?
“Yes, an example would be Instant Karma. I had a hunch that this song could have some relevance to the story based on a close examination of the lyrics and my knowledge of the interpersonal dynamics of the time. I think this period was a protracted negotiation between Lennon and McCartney, and this song seemed to have a veiled message to someone. What clued me into this potential secondary message was I was struck by how the lyrics seemed to reference Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Here, There And Everywhere and perhaps even Let It Be.”
What would the next step be, after you’ve formed an idea?
“So that was my working hypothesis, but then I heard Alice Cooper say that John and Paul fought by writing songs to each other, and he used Instant Karma as an example. Then I read a quote by Tony King, I believe, who said that John talked to him about how Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Instant Karma were tied, and so I thought that was intriguing and it was enough to hypothesise at least that the songs may be part of the musical conversation between Lennon and McCartney.
“I did an episode on it with Dr. Duncan Driver. Of course, we don’t know, but if nothing else, it opens up a new way to look at the song, which could provide additional insight into the period. You have to be a bit of a detective, but unfortunately, you can never be proven right.”
Can you ever glean anything from the music as well as the lyrics? Could the tone or the mood of the songs indicate a deeper meaning or is that reaching too far?
“Oh, absolutely, though it’s harder to make a case for that. But yes, everything about the song tells a story, and I think this is especially pertinent to McCartney’s music. You can usually get a feeling from his songs. I find John’s songs a little easier to read because his lyrics tend to be more linear. They tell a story, and he tends to leave clues in his songs, such as song titles or musical references. For example, the song I Know, (I Know) uses the riff from I’ve Got A Feeling, and it includes lines like, ‘It’s getting better all the time,’ so I can triangulate information. In contrast, Paul’s songs are harder to analyse because his lyrics are less linear, though I find people seem to apply meaning to Paul’s songs more often.
“Say, for example, the song Little Lamb Dragonfly. I think the music communicates sadness and longing, and ultimately hope. He says he misses someone so many people assume it is about John. It could be. All I can conclude is Paul is missing someone, and given the situation, it could be John. But it’s speculative. Also, the musical conversation isn’t just between John and Paul, it also includes George. They are all speaking to each other, and we can probably only glean a tiny bit of it.”
We really enjoyed the episodes of the podcast that focussed on the songs from Abbey Road, there feels like a genuine relationship between those songs and what was going on at the time…
“Oh, thank you. We looked at all the songs from Abbey Road – the various themes as a way to understand this period better. What was each Beatle expressing? One of my big revelations was in considering Lennon’s reaction to the medley, which was more of Paul’s baby and contains some key McCartney songs. I wondered, ‘If Lennon and McCartney are speaking to each other through music, what would Lennon have thought about the medley?’
“We’ve got a man who probably has abandonment issues, so how unnerving must it have been for Lennon to have heard it as a piece, which is a long farewell? Would he have assumed McCartney was checking out? It’s just such an important part of the story to at least consider the music. I have read comments about Abbey Road not being as personal or emotional. I think it provides a wonderful window into the time.
“So music is key. Also, because the podcast looks at the story through a new lens, I like to revisit the music in other ways. It gives us information about their creative processes and how they ideate, collaborate, and create. With John especially, his songs tend to be simple in a very good way, allowing all of the Beatles to add their genius in a way that enhances the song and transforms it to something different.”
Do you think John purposefully left that space for the others?
“I don’t know, but given what he said in 1980 when he complained about Paul’s subconscious sabotage of his songs (like Strawberry Fields Forever and Across The Universe), it would suggest that he did count on Paul to elevate his songs to the sounds he heard in his head. The fact that he calls it “subconscious sabotage” perhaps gives us a glimpse into their partnership. To me, it indicates that John believed Paul understood what he wanted, and the fact that it turned out differently means Paul was sabotaging John’s vision.
“John seems to have believed they had a certain level of telepathy between them so McCartney would know what he was thinking and could bring to life exactly what was in his head. So to answer your question, I don’t think John purposefully left space to be gracious but rather because he needed help to fill in the spaces—but he trusted in their ability to help them, which is important. As an aside, I wonder if John would have eventually gotten to a point where he thought, ‘It wasn’t what I heard, but they made it beautiful in a different way.’”
It seems to us that, when he wasn’t the chief songwriter, McCartney put all his efforts into the overall arrangement or his bass part. What some people view as secret sabotage or him being an egomaniac was actually him giving his all to improve the songs of his bandmates…
“Yes, I agree. John noted in an interview at the end of 1965, that only 100 people around the world really understood their music: George and Ringo and some other friends. The quote is interesting because it shows how internalised the Lennon/McCartney partnership was to John then. It’s “their” music. Ringo and George aren’t even a part of it, though Lennon says they understand the feelings Lennon/McCartney are trying to convey.
“I think McCartney felt like this too. His songs were John’s, and John’s songs were his. I also think they collaborated much more than is assumed. So when McCartney wasn’t leading the song, he put all of his creativity and musical power into arrangement and production. I think what John takes as sabotage was Paul’s attempt to outdo himself on John’s songs. It was Paul working even harder, being more creative. When it comes to music, Paul seems very generous and giving. That’s perhaps one of the ideas we need to let go of about McCartney, this idea that he was an egomaniac at work. I think he gave it his all. Some ideas just need to die.”
Would another be that McCartney was the master of PR?
“Oh, yeah, that one is so ridiculous. One of the best super-ninja tricks that John ever pulled was branding Paul as a master PR guy when in reality, he and Yoko were the masters. We know that John and Yoko refined their stories and worked on them before they’d talk to the press, which is smart. I think they understand the power of provocation and imagery, and they gave excellent in-depth interviews. It also helped that John loved to talk to reporters and was one of the most magnetic, entertaining interviewees ever. He and Yoko gave 10 interviews to every one Paul gave during the breakup period. McCartney seems to find being interviewed a necessary evil most of the time. He’s so private. I guess the test of the greatest PR person is who created the lasting narrative of the Beatles’ story. John and Yoko did, which reflects how good they were at PR.”
Does that cause difficulties in getting to the truth?
“It’s a pity that so much of our understanding of The Beatles comes from the breakup period because that’s when everyone was emotional and upset and seeing things through a negative lens. It’s the equivalent of someone talking about their ex amid a divorce. How objective are they going to be? How much of what they say is reliable? How much is meant to wound the other party? This is how I see the interviews from this time. John said things like he and McCartney stopped writing together by ‘62 or ‘63, but later, he reversed this, saying he was just upset at the time. It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘I never really loved you,’ to an ex. It’s meant to hurt. He took it back, but what he said stuck.
“I think it was important for John and Yoko to craft a story that positioned the breakup of The Beatles as a good thing for John and the partnership with Yoko as good for John. And that was smart. And perhaps, in many ways, it was true for John and all of the Beatles. But McCartney wasn’t as good at telling this story. He was defensive. I think people conflate his social skills with PR. They’re different things.”
Even now it feels like McCartney doesn’t stray too far from the agreed-upon narrative…
“It’s interesting that he doesn’t because he has a fabulous story. But Get Back did a lot of heavy lifting in challenging the accepted story. People can see it wasn’t as they believed, and it’s lovely for me because it supports the story my podcast is telling, which is there was always a lot of love between the Beatles, even in 1969.
“PR is about telling a larger story. I love some of Paul’s interviews from the early 70s, but he was always on the defensive and wasn’t quite able to make his story sound heroic. If you look at his 1971 interview with Life magazine, it’s wonderful, he’s nuanced and open, but he isn’t quite able to make his journey sound exciting. The funny thing is, McCartney has a phenomenal story to tell.”
As in we might not have had the last few Beatles albums if it wasn’t for McCartney?
“Sure, yes, McCartney could have told that story. He could have countered Lennon’s assertion that he led The Beatles in a circle. He could have said, ‘You know who kept The Beatles going? It was me.’ That was a story he could have told. And then nowadays, instead of being on the defensive, saying, ‘I didn’t break up The Beatles,’ he could say, ‘I was the one who dared to make it official because a lot of BS was going on, I felt undervalued, so I walked.’ That is a valid position. And then he could turn the next stage into something heroic — the beginning of indie music, creating a band with his wife; he could romanticise this story much more than he does.
“But I think Paul is fighting old battles. It frustrates me, but I guess he’s been dealing with bad PR for so long, so I understand. For so long, he was blamed for the breakup that I think he’s now obsessed with being absolved of that. But I think people have moved on, and he’s got better stories to tell.”
Did Get Back alter or augment what you were already doing and was it good or bad timing?
“It augmented what I was doing. I love how it made so many people fall in love with the Beatles again, or for the first time. I had done so much research on this period in an attempt to put together a narrative arc that I was nervous about the film. I didn’t know how it would be edited, and you can tell any story through editing, but it was brilliant. It does a tonne of the heavy lifting for the story, in a good way. People are looking at it and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, the creative chemistry is still there, the relationship’s there.’
“It’s hard to watch it and see Paul McCartney as the egoist he’s been painted to be. He’s a creative force, but you can see how much he’s working to keep the band together. And we have been led to believe that John had checked out, but you can see that John Lennon is still invested in the band. The more time he spends with the band, the more engaged he is. George is also engaged despite having some real frustrations. And Ringo is just fabulous.
“So it does a lot in terms of challenging the story. But of course, I have some opinions about the story, and having dug into the Nagra tapes [the bootlegged audio tapes from the Get Back recordings], I think some important elements were left out. But Jackson had to make cuts, and he wants to give us more content, which would be fantastic. I’d love to have as much content as possible. And I will continue to address anything he left out in my podcast.”
Over 50 years later, why does any of this still matter?
“I think The Beatles are like Shakespeare, and we will continue to study them. They changed the culture so substantially and were such a phenomenon that any examination of that period has to look at them. Further, their music is so good that it endures, and they are still among the best-selling artists in the world.
“Also, their story is phenomenal. It’s one of the great stories of our time because it’s about creativity, success, and love. Derek Taylor, their press agent, once called The Beatles, ‘The 20th century’s greatest romance,’ and it is! It’s a romance between The Beatles and the world, and with each other. It’s a creative love story, and we feel the love in their music.”