Without the Beatles

The three strange Lennon-McCartney hits that went to No. 1 without Lennon or McCartney—and what they tell us about the secret to recording a smash.

Fifty-one years ago this summer—in late June 1964—the No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart was a Lennon-McCartney composition. Only it wasn’t by the Beatles, and John Lennon had nothing to do with it. It was a Paul McCartney–penned song recorded, and taken to the chart summit, by a British duo named Peter and Gordon, one of whom was McCartney’s would-be brother-in-law.

Seventeen years after that, in late June 1981, the Hot 100’s No. 1 song also sported Lennon-McCartney writing credits. Only neither man had anything to do with this song, a disco medley of covers—mostly Beatles tunes, though not entirely—by a Dutch studio collective calling itself Stars on 45. Lennon and McCartney weren’t even singing on the record; their vocals were covered by a bunch of sound-alike Dutchmen.

The fact that these two singles rank among the only non-Beatles, Lennon-McCartney compositions to top the chart—ever—says something about the quirky place the Fab Four’s catalog holds in the American imagination. To be exact, there have been three such No. 1 hits. You may have heard of the guy who recorded the third one, back in the mid-’70s, at a time when he had a penchant for large glasses and feather boas.

Before I probe these three strange records—even the one by Elton John is peculiar—let’s take a moment to marvel that none of these chart-topping covers is “Yesterday.” Guinness World Records claims, perhaps apocryphally, that that McCartney-penned tune is the most covered song of all time. “Yesterday” was issued in 1965 as a Beatles single even though Paul McCartney performed it alone, backed only by a string section. Despite the absence of John Lennon and the other two Beatles, it was—like all songs written by either man in the 1960s—published under the songwriting entity Lennon-McCartney.

According to Guinness, “Yesterday” has been recorded more than 2,200 times at last count. Yet the song’s history on the Hot 100 chart is remarkably scant. Two years after the Beatles single topped the Hot 100, Ray Charles’ 1967 version of “Yesterday” reached a modest No. 25 on the same chart and peaked at No. 9 on the R&B chart. Amazingly, Charles’ 1967 cover remains the only version of “Yesterday” besides the Beatles’ own to successfully breach the U.S. Top 40. One other cover, by ’90s R&B girl group En Vogue, briefly appeared on Billboard’s radio charts in 1992; it reached No. 73 at pop radio, No. 29 at R&B.

Of course, recording artists have taken on many other Lennon-McCartney songs. A half-dozen Beatles songs have been turned into Top 10 hits by other acts. These include “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” by the Silkie (No. 10, 1965); “The Fool on the Hill” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (No. 6, 1968); “You Won’t See Me” by Anne Murray (No. 8, 1974); “Got to Get You Into My Life” by Earth, Wind, & Fire (No. 9, 1978); and  “I Saw [Him] Standing There” by Tiffany (No. 7, 1988). Two more covers by soul legends made the R&B Top 5 and the pop Top 20: Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” (No. 13 pop, No. 3 R&B, 1971) and Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby” (No. 17 pop, No. 5 R&B, 1969). As good as many of these covers are, this is a pretty random assortment of songs; many are album cuts, albeit well-regarded ones. Other renowned Beatles covers did even worse on the U.S. charts. For example, neither of Joe Cocker’s classic singles, “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” broke into the Top 30; and two well-known covers of “Come Together,” by Ike and Tina Turner and Aerosmith, missed the Top 20.

We’ve heard Brill Building songwriters and the studio musicians of the Wrecking Crew talk about how the self-contained Beatles made it tougher for the industry’s supporting players to earn a living. But it could be argued that they made it tough for song interpreters, too—once the Fab Four had laid down their George Martin–produced, meticulously recorded versions, other artists approached the songs at their peril. When it comes to the charts, the public has shown, time and again, that it’s wary of Beatles covers.

This trapped-in-amber cultural perception about the Beatles’ catalog might help explain why the only three Lennon-McCartney covers to reach No. 1 are such curios. Each hit’s success was more about the moment than about the song itself. The strange alchemy that makes a song a No. 1 record is always somewhat fluky. But when it comes to Lennon-McCartney songs, it’s really fluky.

Peter and Gordon, “A World Without Love” – No. 1, June 27, 1964 (one week)

Seven Lennon-McCartney songs topped the Hot 100 during 1964, the year the British Invasion kicked off in America. Six of these songs were by the Beatles—from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “I Feel Fine.” The seventh, smack in the middle of the year, was by a British duo who’d never had a hit before, Peter and Gordon.

How did these two pasty-faced lads wind up in possession of an unrecorded, unreleased Lennon-McCartney song in 1964? As with all things show business–related, a little networking never hurt.

The bespectacled half of Peter and Gordon was one Peter Asher, brother of actress Jane Asher. Like his sister, Peter Asher had been a child actor in the 1950s, but around 1963, as Beatlemania gripped England, he formed an earnest, bookish pop duo with his Scottish schoolmate Gordon Waller. In a bit of fortuitous timing, 1963 was also the year his sister began a half-decade courtship and eventual engagement with one James Paul McCartney. While McCartney infamously never married Jane Asher—she finally broke it off in 1968, just before he married Linda Eastman—McCartney spent the mid-’60s as de facto extended family to the Ashers, and his relationship with Peter Asher was brotherly, as chronicled in Bob Spitz’s Beatles biography. McCartney wound up giving his would-be brother-in-law four songs that became Top 40 hits, the biggest of which was the first.

“A World Without Love” was a song McCartney wrote by himself as a teenager. It was deemed unworthy of the Beatles and was even rejected by fellow Merseyside musician Billy J. Kramer, who had hits with several Lennon-McCartney compositions. But Peter and Gordon took it and ran to producer Norman Newell, who openly emulated the then-hot “Mersey sound.” Even if you’ve never heard the song, the chiming guitars and dewy vocal harmonies instantly read as an early-Beatles pastiche. One slightly innovative touch was a Hammond organ bridge—at this point, the Beatles were still months away from prominently employing organ on “Mr. Moonlight.”

Despite this small sonic novelty, on the whole “A World Without Love” is British Invasion without the invasion, as if the lads have been cordially invited to America for a cup of tea. Critic Tom Ewing, in his post on the song for his blog on every U.K. No. 1 hit (“World” topped both the U.S. and U.K. charts in ’64), calls it “a glimpse at a world where the Beatles didn’t make the step up from national to global phenomenon. … Instead they … pursue a profitable sideline and afterlife as a superior pop songwriting team.”

Peter and Gordon had not only the songwriting of McCartney on their side but also great timing. That’s because “World” caught Beatlemania during a brief interlude where the band itself had no product. When the Beatles broke in America in early 1964, they dominated the Hot 100 like no artist before or since. One week in April, famously, they held down the entire Top 5; at various points that spring they held up to 14 spots on the chart. The week in May that “A World Without Love” debuted on the chart, the Beatles still occupied multiple berths—two slots in the Top 5 that week, and four out of the Top 12.

However, what also kept the Beatles busy in the spring of ’64 was shooting a movie, A Hard Day’s Night. This kept them out of the studio and recording for a crucial couple of months, and their many singles finally began slipping off the Hot 100. Indeed, the week in late June that Peter and Gordon took over the No. 1 spot, there were no Beatles singles in the Top 10—former No. 1 “Love Me Do” had slipped to No. 11, and Billy J. Kramer’s cover of the Lennon song “Bad to Me” had just reached its No. 9 peak—and there were only three Beatles singles on the entire Hot 100.

To borrow an economic term, Peter and Gordon were filling a market gap. “World” spent eight weeks in the Top 10. The very week it fell out of the Top 10, from No. 8 to No. 22, debuting right next to it at No. 21 was the Beatles’ own single “A Hard Day’s Night” (the film had premiered a couple of weeks earlier). Two weeks later, “Hard Day’s Night” had shot to No. 1, and “A World Without Love” had fallen off the chart entirely.

Mind you, this wasn’t the end of Peter and Gordon’s hit-making career; they were back in the Top 20 twice before the end of ’64—with two more songs written by McCartney—and they scored two additional Top 10 hits in 1965 and 1966 before disbanding in 1968. Peter Asher ultimately wound up a renowned producer—he recruited a young James Taylor to the Beatles’ label Apple Records in 1968, and he manned the boards for a raft of platinum soft-rock stars in the ’70s and ’80s. But Peter’s ’60s breakthrough with Gordon was all about parlaying his connections at the best possible moment; Asher was to Paul McCartney in 1964 what one-hit-wonder Motown artist Rockwell was to Michael Jackson in 1984.

Elton John, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” – No. 1, Jan. 4 to Jan. 11, 1975 (two weeks)

While Peter and Gordon’s hit had been a Paul McCartney composition and a leftover, Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was a chart-topping cover of a song largely written by John Lennon. And “Lucy” was far from a leftover—it was a track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that famously had no singles issued from it in 1967 and, hence, no chart hits. But what Elton’s cover of “Lucy” had in common with Peter and Gordon’s fluke chart-topper was that it didn’t matter what they knew so much as whom they knew.

Elton John met John Lennon at a great time for Elton’s career, and a strange moment for Lennon. It was Lennon’s so-called “Lost Weekend,” a debauched 18 months from late 1973 to early 1975 in which he was estranged from wife Yoko Ono and drinking and drugging his way through Los Angeles. Elton was no slouch in the debauchery department, but when he and Lennon met up in the summer of 1974, Elton’s career was at an apex—he was in the middle of an unprecedented American run of No. 1 albums and hit singles. Lennon, by contrast, had to that date built (oddly) the least commercially successful career of the four solo Beatles—even Ringo had scored No. 1 singles while Lennon had none. (His canonical hits “Instant Karma!” and “Imagine” had both peaked at No. 3 in America, in 1970 and 1971, respectively.)

Lennon’s and Elton’s sessions in the summer and early fall of ’74 changed all that. Elton did Lennon a major solid, singing backup on “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” and betting Lennon that the song would be his first solo-career chart-topper; if proved right, Elton said Lennon had to join him in concert. In November, “Whatever” indeed became Lennon’s first solo No. 1 single, and the Beatle made good on the bet by appearing at an Elton John show at Madison Square Garden at Thanksgiving 1974. (It turned out to be Lennon’s last live appearance.)

Even before that show, Lennon had already repaid Elton by helping him record a cover of Lennon’s composition “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Not that the public needed it from Elton at that moment, but the bromance between him and Lennon was a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval on Elton’s cover of “Lucy.” Lennon even provided backing vocals and guitar on “Lucy” under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O’Boogie. Like Lennon’s “Whatever,” Elton’s “Lucy” also wound up atop the Hot 100, at the start of ’75. Elton was especially prolific during this period—“Lucy” was a non-album single, and it was followed immediately by another one-off No. 1 hit, the smash “Philadelphia Freedom.”

This 1974–75 period marked the apex of what we might call Elton’s Imperial phase, and it explains why the “Lucy” cover even exists: It was a total Because I Can move. In its original Beatles incarnation, “Lucy” already had a reputation as a drug anthem. But in Elton’s hands, “Lucy” turns whimsical—it is largely meant to play off of and boost Elton’s brand, his glittery, cuddly Captain Fantastic persona.

In a review several years later of the Greatest Hits Volume II album on which “Lucy” appeared, dean of American rock critics Robert Christgau called Elton’s cover “dippy,” and I’d agree—everything about it is too cute by half. Listen to the way Elton overplays the courtliness of Lennon’s whimsical lyrics. (I’m thinking especially of the way he says “maaashmallow” around 1:40.) Then there’s the head-scratching reggae version of the chorus, during which Elton—and an audible Lennon—do some plinky white-boy toasting for half a minute. A novel concept, to be sure (listen for it around 3:30), but it only further establishes the track as a novelty.

Even if you are a big Elton John fan, it’s hard to regard “Lucy” as much more than a footnote. For a No. 1 hit, it had a remarkably quick burn on the charts (just 14 weeks, versus 21 weeks for “Philadelphia”), and on the radio of today, it has a modest legacy. Nielsen reports that last year, Elton’s “Lucy” was played on oldies radio less than one-sixth as much as “Philadelphia,” its twin 1975 chart-topper. In sum, Elton’s “Lucy” is to Elton what “Who’s That Girl” is to Madonna or the cover of “I’ll Be There” is to Mariah Carey—a No. 1 hit whose very existence is a reflection of a megastar’s own megastardom.

Stars on 45, “Medley …” – No. 1, June 20, 1981 (one week)

Where should we begin with everything that’s strange about the Stars on 45’s chart-topping 1981 hit—the true outlier among this collection of Lennon-McCartney outliers? Let’s start with its twisted backstory.

The story starts with the Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” a worldwide smash in 1970, including here in America where it was No. 1 (you may also know its second chart-topping version, a 1986 cover by Bananarama). The Shocking Blue is a Dutch group, and the copyright for that song was owned by Dutch publishing company Red Bullet Productions, run by one Willem van Kooten. In the summer of 1979, van Kooten was in a record store and heard a 12-inch disco medley, which mashed together original recordings of songs by the Beatles and the Archies with then-current hits by Heatwave, Lipps Inc., and the Buggles. Disco medleys like this weren’t unprecedented. The Ritchie Family’s 1976 Top 20 hit “The Best Disco in Town” strung together snippets of a half-dozen current hits; and countless white-label disco 12-inches would mash together current hits on the gray market, like modern-day hip-hop mixtapes.

But the 1979 bootleg 12-inch single van Kooten heard was more brazen in its use of so many original recordings, many of them hard to clear. What piqued van Kooten’s curiosity was a small snippet of the Shocking Blue’s “Venus” in the mix; he knew he hadn’t authorized it. The bootleg sported the not-quite-grammatical English title “Let’s Do It in the 80’s Great Hits”; it was credited to a faux band, Passion, on a faux record label, Alto—but the bootleg’s real origins were in Montreal. It was the handiwork of French-Canadian DJs Michel Gendreau and Paul Richer, who specialized in splicing together bits of music from different genres, a kind of analog Girl Talk. Despite invoking the ’80s in their record’s title, the single largely trafficked in ’60s nostalgia. One version of Gendreau and Richer’s medley included three Beatles songs: “No Reply,” “I’ll Be Back,” and “Drive My Car.” A longer version added another five Fabs titles: “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” “We Can Work It Out,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “Nowhere Man,” and “You’re Going to Lose That Girl.”

Charmed and inspired by the unlicensed 12-inch, van Kooten decided that rather than stamp it out, he would better it, creating a licensed version of the medley using sound-alike artists to replicate the original hits (covers require only the payment of publishing fees, not licensing of the original recordings). He contacted producer Jaap Eggermont—formerly of the veteran Dutch rock group Golden Earring—who in turn worked with musical arranger Martin Duiser. In addition to all eight Beatles songs from the Montreal 12-inch, Eggermont threw in a small snippet of “Venus,” as well as one other oldie from the bootleg, the Archies’ 1969 hit “Sugar Sugar.” The Beatles sound-alikes were by established Dutch singers, all of them in current Dutch bands.

The recordings were spliced together, analog-style, against an unremittingly chipper clap track. That clap track is what you’ll remember most from the final Stars on 45 single. It is to this record what the relentless snare beat is to 1989’s “Swing the Mood” by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers (that ghastly mashup of ’50s songs that wedding DJs love). The clap also specifically dates the track to the turn of the ’80s—when the disco backlash was at full force, and dance music was transitioning into forms like electro where it could hide in plain sight.

What’s charming about the Stars on 45 single, however, is its unhip, unabashed attachment to pure, late-’70s disco—made explicit by Eggermont’s incongruous introduction to the record. It’s an original melody he wrote, sung by a female vocalist and chorus, with Bee Gees–style harmonies and multiple references to disco in a kind of pidgin English (curiously, the intro mentions two Beatles song titles, “Twist and Shout” and “Tell Me Why,” that never appear in the Stars on 45 medley):

You can boogie, like disco—love that disco sound.
Move up your body, spinnin’ round and round.
But don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t forget, oh no.
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t forget, no, no, no.
The Stars on 45
Keep on turning in your mind.
Like “We Can Work It Out.”
Remember “Twist and Shout”?
You still don’t “Tell Me Why” and “No Reply.”

This incongruity is what is most surreal about the Stars on 45 track—the idea that Beatles-era production would ever fit so comfortably next to late-disco-era production styles, let alone lead to a hit single. (A previous, very recent attempt to do the same with a bigger budget had proved disastrous.) Eggermont and Duiser’s production labors mightily to pull this off, taking more than a minute to segue from its original disco lead-in into “Venus” and “Sugar Sugar” before all the Beatles hits show up roughly a minute and a half into the record. There are some ingenious moments: The juxtaposition of “No Reply” with the ensuing, minor-key “I’ll Be Back” is the single’s most inspired segue.

While the original, nearly 10-minute Dutch single made its first appearance in early 1980, it only really took off about a year later, after Dutch DJs focused on the four-minute Beatles segment. In response, Eggermont and Duiser came up with a tighter, sub-five-minute mix that focused on the Beatles segment and fit on a 45-RPM single. That version topped the Dutch charts in February 1981 before beginning its improbable world conquest, hitting either No. 2 or No. 1 in England, Australia, Germany, Spain, and other countries before finally hitting the top in America.

And in our country, it had a unique title. In most parts of the world, the song was released simply as “Stars on 45 (Medley),” and the artist credit was sometimes also Stars on 45 or the generic Starsound. But the single’s U.S. label, Radio Records (a subsidiary of major label Atlantic), covered its bases with litigious publishers by listing every song in the title. The result—“Medley: Intro Venus / Sugar Sugar / No Reply / I’ll Be Back / Drive My Car / Do You Want to Know a Secret / We Can Work It Out / I Should Have Known Better / Nowhere Man / You’re Going to Lose That Girl / Stars on 45”—remains the longest title of a No. 1 hit in Hot 100 history, more than four times the length of a 10-word chart-topper from 1975, B.J. Thomas’ “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”

In the U.S., the Stars on 45 single was so popular in the summer of ’81 that it interrupted the nine-week run at No. 1 of the year’s biggest single, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” Which prompts the question: What the fuck, America? Or more politely, why? European pop kitsch only occasionally crosses over in the U.S.—otherwise Boney M. would have had bigger hits here. Not to mention the fact that Stars on 45 also had to get past the mirror ball–exploding fever pitch of the disco backlash, which was at its apex by 1981. How did Stars on 45 overcome these hurdles?

I would credit two cultural phenomena—one global, one specific to America. First was the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. The fact that the song only took off globally in early 1981, more than a year after its release, can clearly be attributed to the outpouring of grief prompted by Lennon’s death, which prompted a fusillade of Beatles nostalgia and a kitschy reinvigoration of Lennon’s, and the Beatles’, legacy. The Stars on 45 single is Beatles kitsch on steroids. As with Peter and Gordon in 1964, the song was helping to satisfy a hungry market.

After Lennon’s murder, sales for his music exploded: Double Fantasy, his just-issued album with Yoko Ono, shot to No. 1 in America and generated three Top 10 hit singles, the most ever from a Lennon album. The third and final of these three hits, “Watching the Wheels,” reached its No. 10 peak in the spring of 1981, the same week the Stars on 45 medley broke into the Top 10. In effect, the public was passing the baton from Lennon himself to other acts that could help them grieve. Indeed, just over a month later, George Harrison began climbing the Hot 100 with “All Those Years Ago,” his breezy, unabashed homage to Lennon. The week Harrison’s song peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100, Stars on 45 was still in the Top 10. Both singles were embraced in the summer of ’81 as tributes to Lennon—but only Harrison’s was intentional.

The other, more U.S.-specific reason Stars on 45 caught on was another fluke of timing: the aerobics-and-fitness craze, fueled by the release of Jane Fonda’s 1981 book Workout. “Stars on 45,” with its clap beat and novel repackaging of a familiar Boomer hit parade, was the ultimate hit by which a 35-year-old record-buyer could feel the burn. (I myself have junior high memories of our gym teacher soundtracking our seventh-grade workouts to her vinyl copy of “Stars on 45.”) The song was ahead of the curve on a uniquely American phenomenon—later in 1981, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” would be a bigger hit here (10 weeks at No. 1) than in any other country around the world. This one-two punch—grief-stricken Beatles nostalgia and resonance with the year’s biggest U.S. fad—proved potent.

Indeed, Stars on 45 proved so popular that it actually spawned a fad of its own: a roughly 18-month-long medley craze. Before the end of 1982, the estates of Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles themselves would all score Hot 100 hits with official medleys of their original recordings. (The Beatles’ medley, a mashup of their movie themes that lacked a click-track beat, was awkwardly mixed and actually made the Stars on 45’s clap-beat approach look more deft.) Meco, the guy behind the chart-topping 1977 disco version of the Star Wars theme, came back to the Top 40 in ’82 with a medley of other random movie themes, from The Magnificent Seven to Goldfinger. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—an actual classical ensemble from London—amazingly reached the Top 10 with the symphonic disco medley “Hooked on Classics” (selections included “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “The Marriage of Figaro”). And as for the Stars on 45 themselves, they were no one-hit wonder—“Stars on 45 III,” a medley of Stevie Wonder covers, reached No. 28 in the spring of 1982, almost a full year after their world-beating Beatles medley.

* * *

All three of the Lennon-McCartney-attributed No. 1 hits I’ve discussed here feel like fads or flukes. As recordings, they defy categorization, but they do offer a small window into the strange alchemy by which songs become hits. If the first three rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” the first three rules of hit-making are “timing, timing, timing.” Peter and Gordon’s pleasant McCartney recording found a small window when the public was starved for a novel simulacrum of the Beatles’ sound. Elton John’s Lennon cover went all the way to the top, where other ’70s Beatles covers fell short, by riding Elton’s own tsunami just as it crested. And the Stars on 45 producers hit the ultimate timing jackpot, in the saddest way possible.

Other than a brief Top 10 run by Tiffany’s 1988 cover of “I Saw Her Standing There,” there have been very few Lennon-McCartney hits since the Stars on 45. Actually, the last one was by a 1995 band that had the temerity to call themselves the Beatles.

That would be the trio of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, reunited for the 1995 ABC-TV Beatles Anthology documentary series and recording over leftover solo recordings by John Lennon. While the Anthology project generated a trio of chart-topping, multiplatinum albums, the two singles released from those LPs charted much more modestly: a No. 6 peak for the breathlessly awaited “Free as a Bird,” and a No. 11 peak for the follow-up, “Real Love.” They peaked quickly on the Hot 100, fueled largely by sales to the most rabid Beatle fans, but radio airplay was minuscule. A quarter-century after they broke up, the Beatles’ inimitable recorded legacy—having frustrated generations of song interpreters—finally foiled the Beatles themselves.

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