Old Wives' Tales
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Toxin du jour
Claim: The Beatles recorded songs entitled "Colliding Circles," "Left Is Right (And Right Is Wrong)," "Pink Litmus Paper Shirt," and "Deck Chair," which remain unreleased to this day.
Origins: In the three decades between the break-up of the Beatles and the rise of the Internet as a means of sharing both information and music, collecting unreleased Beatles material (and trying to find that holiest of holy grails, an actual unreleased production-quality original Beatles song) was often a difficult and disappointing chore for devout Beatles fans. Information about what unheard Beatles recordings might still be gathering dust in a vault somewhere had to be gleaned from a myriad of books, music magazines, and fan publications, many of them inaccurate and contradictory. Obtaining such recordings was primarily accomplished by purchasing bootleg records and tapes through the mail or at swap meets, where caveat emptor was the rule since the buyer rarely had the chance to listen to what he was buying in advance. Plenty of Beatles fans who thought they'd finally gotten their hands on an album full of unreleased gems heartbreakingly discovered their latest acquisitions were mere costume jewelry: live tracks or radio performances passed off as studio recordings, tunes by other artists mislabeled as Beatles material, aimless studio jamming, and unidentifiable song fragments, reproduced with all the sonic fidelity of a fast food drive-through speaker buried under three inches of mud.
Trying to separate the wheat from the chaff was a difficult chore for Beatles enthusiasts, as no official master list of everything the Fab Four had recorded existed to help guide collectors. Fans and writers compiled their own lists from a variety of sources (primarily borrowing from each other). Lists of unreleased Beatles material swelled but rarely grew smaller, as it was difficult to prove any particular title didn't exist.
As it turned out, no treasure trove of lost Beatles recordings existed. EMI had preserved all but the very earliest of the Beatles' session tapes; in 1982 an Abbey Road Studios engineer named John Barrett methodically listened to and cataloged all of
So what happened to those dozens of "lost" songs with intriguing titles that kept popping up in Beatles discographies? Many of them were familiar Beatles songs misidentified by their working titles, songs mislabeled by bootleggers unfamiliar with the real titles, or songs the Beatles gave away to other artists but never properly recorded themselves. And some of them were made up out of whole cloth.
In my teens I was as unabashed a Beatles fan as ever there was, and I'd spend hours poring over the 1975 discography All Together Now, studying the "Bootlegs" section and trying to imagine what recorded-but-never-released songs such as "If You've Got Trouble" and "That Means a Lot" might sound like. Some of the reported outtake titles, such as "Pink Litmus Paper Shirt," sounded a little too bizarre to be real Beatles songs to me, but I thought the same thing when I first gazed upon their Let It Be album and found tracks with names such as "I Dig a Pony," "I Me Mine," and "One After 909."
Turns out I'd had good reason to be skeptical. Back in 1971, writer-humorist Martin Lewis, later an assistant for former Beatles publicist Derek Taylor and a consultant on Beatles-related projects such as the Live at the BBC and Anthology CDs, had compiled a Beatles bootleg discography for Disc magazine. Concerned that his list didn't have anything compelling and new to offer, Lewis inserted four song titles he'd simply made up: the John Lennon polemic "Left Is Right (And Right Is Wrong)," George Harrison's "Pink Litmus Paper Shirt," a Paul McCartney vaudeville-style number (similar to the White Album's "Honey Pie") with the improbable title "Deck Chair," and another John Lennon track, "Colliding Circles." Since everybody knows that anything appearing in print must be true, Lewis' "outfakes" were picked up by other compilers who have continued to propagate them ever since, despite the complete lack of any evidence for their existence. As Lewis noted, his made-up songs have even acquired additional details along the way:
All these authors unwittingly became part of a monstrous prank. Some people have added filigree, like "John played clarinet on this one." Once the titles appeared in a kosher book, everyone assumed these four bogus songs were real.(George Harrison, not John Lennon, did create a demo of a song entitled "Circles" in 1968, but it was a completely different song that made no reference to "colliding circles" either in the title or the lyrics. Harrison eventually recorded "Circles" fourteen years later and released it on his 1982 solo album Gone Troppo.)
Even as the Beatles were releasing what little was left in the vaults on the Anthology series, reviewers were still holding out hope that these mythical tracks would turn up:
The most potentially interesting unreleased material comes from later years and will presumably find its way on to future volumes. With legendary neglected songs like "Colliding Circles" around, there is undoubtedly enough from which to fashion a bizarre but compelling Beatles album.Lewis publicly confessed to his prank in performances of his one-man show in January 1999, and again in June 2001, but some fans still aren't buying it and insist that his hoax is itself a hoax:
To my shock and horror, many Beatles fans refused to believe me. People told me, "Your confession is a hoax. I know someone who's got those songs."So now Lewis finds himself in the same boat as actor Eddie Murphy, whose repeated disavowal of the infamous elevator legend is often repudiated by people who insist that no matter what he says, they absolutely swear a friend or relative of theirs was indeed frightened after finding herself alone in an elevator with Murphy and his entourage and received a lovely gift from him afterwards. Such is the public's investment in some tales that they can't bring themselves to let go of the apocryphal ones to embrace the truth.
Sightings: Neil Innes worked all four of Lewis' "outfake" titles into "Unfinished Words," a track on Archaeology, the Rutles' 1996 spoof of the Beatles' Anthology albums.
Last updated: 22 May 2007
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