In Chrome Dreams’ previous documentary on a specialty record company, From Straight to Bizarre, the filmmakers had several advantages. First, the story of Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen’s eccentric labels is known mainly among cult circles. Much of the music discussed is extremely rare, so most viewers would find this film an eye-opening history lesson in a rather obscure chapter of rock. Second, while there was useful commentary from music historians, the heart of the film were the interviews with many of the actual participants including members of the GTOs, Alice Cooper, and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
However, the story for Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records is rather different and much more complex. After all, Apple had four head chefs named John, Paul, George, and Ringo with other key players like Beatle compatriots Peter Asher, Mal Evans, and Neil Aspinall. While the Zappa and Beatles projects were almost exactly concurrent (essentially from 1968 to the mid-70s), Apple Records had a very high profile indeed. From the much publicized 1967 announcement the group was seeking new talent, the post-Epstein rudderless period, the Allen Klein takeover, and finally the ultimate break-up of the Beatles, the story of Apple Corp Ltd. topped the headlines. Along the way, the group had popular releases from the Fabs themselves as well as a handful of their discoveries, notably James Taylor, Badfinger, and Mary Hopkin. Of course, this is only part of the story.
Strange Fruit attempts to analyze and explore some of the lesser-known aspects of Apple Records, and the resulting lengthy (162 minutes) film is a mixed bag, much like its subject. It’s at its best when musicians like Jackie Lomax, David Peel, members of Badfinger and Elephant’s Memory, as well as label M.D. Tony Bramwell, reminisce about their involvement with Apple. They were there. However, Beatle “experts” Chris Ingham and Mark Payt get much of the screen time, and their perspectives are often intriguing and just as often quite debatable. In particular, the choices of what releases get in-depth coverage and which do not should raise some eyebrows. Even more questionable are some of the conclusions the experts make.
To be fair, the multi-faceted stories of Apple Records productions are skillfully woven together. Following a chronological flow, it’s clear 1968 was a time of utopian and energetic goodwill in Apple offices. It’s evident the Beatles who invested the most energy in the early days were McCartney and Harrison. That is, when they were inclined to produce or support the acts they had signed. Since every release and signing had to have the approval of a Beatle, if the group was busy with its own affairs or on vacation, much productivity was lost.
This is detailed when original Iveys guitarist Ron Grifffiths and his replacement Joey Molland talk about their first minor hit, “Maybe Tomorrow,” and the long period of inactivity afterward. Finally, McCartney took note, gave them the song “Come and Get It,” and the group became Badfinger. But, among their observations about their tenure with Apple is the fact McCartney saw record making as a Beatle. That is, beyond producing the songs and choosing much of the material, Apple Records had no machinery to do what every other company was doing—having their artists go on the road and appear in concerts. The Beatles didn’t do it, so why should their artists?
Likewise, McCartney’s other success, Mary Hopkin, was molded in Sir Paul’s own image. While she saw herself as a folk singer, Paul pushed her into being a pop star. He gave her one hit, “Goodbye,” that was clearly a McCartney tune with a different singer. In a similar vein, Harrison had the artists he liked work in the style he liked. This is traced in the words of Jackie Lomax, one of the first artists signed. Harrison wrote, and three of the Beatles played on, Lomax’s first single “Sour Milk Sea.” It drowned in the massive success of “Hey Jude” and “Those Were the Days” which were released at the same time at the end of 1968. All-star bands were one thing, but knowing how to market them was something else. And if no one is minding the store, you’re going to miss some potential hot talent. David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash were among the acts that couldn’t get noticed.
For the first years of the label, it’s clear Lennon just wasn’t interested. He was all about Yoko. After McCartney walked away when Klein took over, Apple essentially financed Yoko’s very expensively produced releases, which suited her husband just fine. Then, after moving to New York, Lennon expanded his horizons and worked with David Peel and Elephant’s Memory. Peel and alumni of the latter band discuss what the Lennon’s were like in the political period just before Lennon withdrew from the music scene after the failure of Sometime in New York City . His new disinterest signaled the creative end of Apple Records. At least, in terms of this documentary.
What’s missing from this overview? Some acts, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Brute Force, Radha Krishna Temple, and Ronnie Spector get brief mentions. Not so Hot Chocolate, a band that actually enjoyed commercial success after their Apple tenure. There’s no mention of Apple’s first release—catalogue Apple 1—of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Kahn performing “Maureen is a Champ,” a tribute to Ringo’s wife. There’s no mention of Zapple, the short-lived offshoot intended for more experimental projects. The Zapple imprint put out two albums from Lennon and Harrison and would have released spoken-word recordings from poets Richard Brautigan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure if Klein had not pulled the plug. There’s much made of the fact Harry Nillson had a hit with Badfinger’s “Without You.” But there is nothing said about Nilsson and Ringo Starr’s 1974 Son of Dracula soundtrack for the Apple Films comedy on the Rapple label—a co-release of RCA and Apple.
Obviously, to be totally inclusive could have resulted in a dry inventory of many insignificant singles and albums. A good bonus feature could have included all this, as well as a discography of all the re-issues now available on CD. On the other hand, much screen time is devoted to critiques as to why some records were more successful than others. There’s much rhapsodizing on the glories of Ono’s solo work, certainly reflecting a minority view. Perhaps the talking heads are correct when they claim releases from Billy Preston and Doris Troy suffered from musical blandness. Preston, of course, like other Apple alumni, would enjoy greater success when they moved to other labels with more support than the dying Apple could provide.
Therefore, all viewers for this film should be on notice that it’s part informative, part opinion, and not definitive. How could it be with key players, such as Neil Aspinall, president of the company before and after Klein, not being involved? All this being said, most Beatle fans will want to add this disc to their collections. There are insights many likely have never heard before. there are many musical selections rarely heard, then and now. (I must add that many of the visuals are obviously imagery stuck in simply to have background for these excerpts, and apparently one key source for some material is YouTube.) If viewers are encouraged to seek out more of this music, then Strange Fruit will have been of service to artists who may not have gotten their full due all those years ago. Just remember that, even after 162 minutes, there’s much more to the Apple legacy than captured here.