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“From Me to You” – An Interview with Peter Asher, CBE

Peter Asher (My Father’s Place)

by Kat Mokrynski

As an avid fan of The Beatles, one of my favourite things to do while staying at home during quarantine is to turn on Sirius XM and listen to The Beatles Channel, a radio channel dedicated exclusively to the “Fab Four” and the music that they wrote, as long as other songs from the 1960s that are connected to the band. One man in particular, Peter Asher, not only was in a duo who performed at the same time as The Beatles – His family actually hosted Paul McCartney in their home for a few years while he was dating Peter’s sister, Jane. Even after performing Asher continues to be involved in music, working on music management and production while hosting “From Me to You” on The Beatles Channel. Read on to learn more about Peter Asher’s involvement with The Beatles Channel and how the music industry has developed since the 60s. 

Sundial Press: First question – I had read that you were into acting when you were younger. What inspired you to move into singing?

Peter Asher: I’ve always liked singing. I was in the choir at school and my mother was a professional musician. My father was an amateur pianist who loved singing as well. Big Gilbert and Sullivan fans, if you know who they are. So, singing was a part of life, I enjoyed it. And once we discovered rock and roll it became a passion.

SP: So, rock and roll was the main inspiration?

PA: Well, the singing was just its own thing. I loved to sing soprano, so singing was part of my life from early on. I was singing the classical pieces as a soprano, but it certainly became more exciting when we discovered rock and roll and pop music as well.

SP: Okay! So with that, how was the duo of Peter and Gordon established?

PA: We met at school and to be honest, it was really just because we were both aware of each other, and the fact that we both played guitar. I would see someone else in school carrying ‘round a guitar case so we started talking. We both sang and played a bit and so we tried doing it together. If there’d been three or four of us, we could’ve formed a band, but at the time, we didn’t know of anyone else who played, so we just became a duo, taking the Everly Brothers as our primary inspiration because it was the duo we knew about. Which, by the way, remains true! So we started singing and it sounded okay, so we kept doing it and eventually started playing at school functions, parties, and eventually paid gigs at coffee shops, pubs, and whatever else.

SP: Along with the duo, how did it start that Paul McCartney gave you the music that was not used by The Beatles?

PA: Well, it’s kind of a long, roundabout story that you probably know most of. I met Paul because he met my sister (Jane Asher) and they started going out together. She was a well-known actor at the time, a celebrity. She’d been invited to go and see the Beatles’ first London concert to write a piece about them for a magazine, what all the fuss was about and whether she thought they were as good as they were supposed to be. So they were terrific, and she went to see them and met them afterwards. She liked them and they liked her, one of them liked her in particular and asked her out. So she and Paul were going out together for a few years and that led to the fact that he was hanging around the house all the time. Eventually, our parents took pity on him, I guess, and offered him the guest room at the top of the house, as he was over for dinner for most nights anyway. And so he moved in for a couple of years and we became friends.

Then I heard this leftover song that Paul told me he hadn’t finished because John didn’t like it, and the Beatles weren’t going to record it. So when Gordon and I got a record deal ourselves, separately from the fact—we were spotted in a club and signed by EMI—they did say, ‘do you have any other songs that you could bring to the sessions?’ and that’s when I went back to Paul and asked if the Beatles were ever going to do the song (“A World Without Love”) and he said ‘no, I haven’t finished it, you can have it,’ but in time for the session I had to persuade him to finish it right then, the bridge part. So that’s how it happened.

So a lot of people ask me, ‘how did you get those songs from the Beatles?’ because we did what, three or four that Paul wrote. They (Paul McCartney and John Lennon) took their songwriting career very seriously. In fact, one of the questions we all got in interviews, the Beatles and us, was ‘what are you going to do when this is all over?’ because it was set in peoples’ minds that a career in pop music was going to last three years at most and then you would go back to whatever you were doing before. And so the Beatles answered that question by saying, ‘we will be songwriters.’ Their idols weren’t only popstars like Elvis but were also Goffin and King and Leiber and Stoller, all the great songwriting teams of that era, they wanted to do that as well. We were lucky to get songs, which was a series of great coincidences. But after that we were following up a #1 record, of course, everyone wants to write songs for us, so does everybody else. They took that aspect of writing. And people asked if they were upset that they gave away such good songs. No! They got paid like songwriters do, you know? That’s what songwriting is, they were delighted to have careers as artists and a career as songwriters at the same time.

A young Peter Asher in the 1960s (AV Club)

SP: So when you said that you were encouraging Paul to finish “A World Without Love,” did you help with it?

PA: No, I wish! I just said, you know, ‘The session is imminent, we really need a bridge,’ and he finally took his guitar and went to his bedroom and in an impossibly short time, like seven or eight minutes, and came out with [sings] “So I wait and in a while, I will see my true love’s smile,” the bridge which is beautiful that’s in the song. I wish I had written it, that would have been another story.

SP: After your singing career, what made you decide to go into music management, particularly with Apple Records in the 1960s?

PA: Well, that’s kind of two entirely different questions and I’ll explain why. I decided to get into record production, which was more or less what I did with my job at Apple. Record production was something I consciously decided to get into. To produce a disc, it sounded like the greatest thing in the world. The fact that you could work with great singers and amazing musicians and tell ‘em what to do, working with musicians much better than yourself. I thought it was all brilliant. So I decided to see what it was, watching our producer at work and seeing how records were made. I loved the technical aspect, the artistic aspect, I loved it all. That was the ambition I had – I set out to become a record producer and I did.

Being a manager was not something I’d ever imagined, and it was not an ambition of mine, in and of itself. I became a manager only when I found James Taylor and when we left Apple because we didn’t know anyone we trust to do it. I’d watched Brian Epstein become a very successful manager and he’d never done it before. He did it by learning as he went and the fact that he was managing a brilliant band. I thought that I could fill those conditions so James and I decided that I should become his manager. So that was not an ambition per se, simply a practical move because we didn’t want anyone else to do it.

SP: You mentioned Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles. Did you ever speak with him about management?

PA: Not so much about management, as I hadn’t started managing until he wasn’t around. I was more just watching him and hearing from Paul about his meetings with Brian and how Brian did things and watching how he worked with the Beatles to protect them and to protect their image. I learned a lot from watching him.

SP: When you moved with James Taylor from England to America, were there major differences in the two industries?

PA: Yes, there were. I mean, we’d learned that from the first time we came to America as Peter and Gordon, that was the big difference. The radio was completely different. British radio then was totally formal, the BBC was the station and only allowed to play records for one or two hours a week, which is why there are so many live shows from the BBC. The Beatles Live at the BBC, that was because they couldn’t play records. The only way to plug your song was to go and sing it live. American DJs – Nothing like that existed in England at all. In England, the DJ was an announcer person in a booth and somebody else would put the record on. Not like all those whistles and bells and spinning the records yourself, yelling and all of that stuff. We thought that was so cool, we liked it a lot.

The music business in England was and is kind of different than America because it’s a much smaller country and it’s not regional like America. America you can have a hit in L.A. and a flop in New York, there’s no British equivalent to that. There were some specific differences which we learned rapidly. But certainly, as a manager, my career was based in America. Technically I learned about the American record business first, from a management point of view. Then England came much later, along with the rest of the world. Back then, America was more than half the music business. America was it. You had to hit America, that was it.

SP: Along with that question, what are some important developments that you have noted since the 60s in the music industry?

PA: Well, my God, you know the answer to that question – everything’s changed completely. Over the years, the CD changed things, the cassette changed things, the DVD changed things, and then digital and streaming stuff changed everything more than ever. The differences have been technical, but the technical changes have changed the way everything has happened. The one thing that’s been completely consistent is that it’s always been word of mouth that matters. As much as you try to advertise a record or get it played on the radio, in the end, it’s word of mouth.

The huge difference though is that back in the beginning, word of mouth to me as a music fan back then was when you came back from a gig. You could call maybe three of four friends and tell them how good the gig was. Or when you got an LP you really liked, you’d make a cassette of two or three favourite tracks and send it to some girl you’re trying to impress or something. But now, of course, you can come back from the gig and tell a billion people how good it was, and you can recommend a track to a billion people, which is great for promoting your music. But the downside is that if you can do that, so can everybody else, so it becomes crazy, as you know.  The good thing is, it’s easier to listen to music than it ever was.

You can kind of listen to pretty much everything you want to everywhere you are, which is good. It’s a bit complicated, I still get annoyed by that kind of stuff, it gets a bit confusing because there are so many different ways to listen to music. Now, pretty much wherever you are, you just speak into the air and tell some anonymous being what you’d like to hear, and it starts playing. You don’t even have to worry about where it’s playing from and who owns it, whether you’re speaking to Google, Siri, or whatever. It’s come to the point where someone from the 60s would consider it a miracle. You could walk into any room in the world and go, ‘I’d like to hear some polka music’ and it’ll bloody happen, you know? It’s extraordinary.

SP: Do you believe that with all of the new developments that there is an over-saturation of the music industry? If there is, do you think that it’s hurting or helping it?

PA: No, it’s neither. I mean there’s always been more music than anyone knows how to deal with. You’re more aware of how much there is now because of all of these systems to listen to it. It used to be more filtered, you only got to hear something when other people had decided it’s a hit. All of that is a bit confusing, but it’s not necessarily good or bad. And the main good thing is that there’s just as much great music now as there ever was. I’m not one of those ‘they don’t write songs like that anymore’ type of guy. A lot of people are going ‘You know, it’s so great that you guys (The Beatles Channel) are out here doing these songs because 60s music is so much better than music now. In my mind, that’s nonsense. There are so many great people out there now.

SP: So speaking of 60s music . . . With the Beatles Channel, were you involved with the development of it?

PA: No, I’d always wondered why there wasn’t one, but I’d never really inquired. Turns out of course they (Sirius XM) had been talking to Apple about a possible channel for ages. Obviously, if you’ve got an Elvis channel and a Sinatra channel, it was as if, where are the bloody Beatles? Apple has always been quite gradual if you remember the Beatles came out on CD longer after everybody else did. Eventually, they did come to terms because they needed permission to do a Beatles channel and they finally decided to do it. The first I knew of it was when the Beatles channel came to me and said, ‘We should do a show, maybe you should’. I checked with Apple to make sure that the request was coming from the Beatles, not just from Sirius. I said fine.

The Beatles Channel logo (Sirius XM)

SP: With your shows, “From Me to You” and “All Together Now,” how were you involved in the creation? Were you allowed to come up with your own concept or were there guidelines?

PA: They gave me no guidelines whatsoever. Now, “All Together Now” is different because it was a plan they’d always had, and I think they’d done it before, too, doing the Beatles Top 100. And then with the success of my show, they decided to ask me if I would host that show. In that case, they sent me the list of the top hundred. I get a lot of people writing to me saying, ‘What were you thinking? I’m amazed this song is Number 8, why did the song go down?’ and I’m going, ‘I don’t know!’. And to be honest, I’m not that keen on “Best of” lists. They give me the list and my job is to read it and add some interesting bits and pieces about the songs, which is what I do. But do I really care whether something goes up or down? No. And I’m impressed at how many people seem to take it very seriously, they take it as a personal front when their favourite isn’t in the Top 10. Someone goes, ‘Why would this song be in there?’ and I go ‘You know, I guess you’re right, I don’t know.’ They think I made up the list or something, but it’s purely from people voting.

SP: So when you tell the different stories about the songs in “All Together Now,” do you do research?

PA: Yep, unfortunately, research. I wish! People are always going ‘Oh, your memory is so great!’ even though I don’t remember anything! When people ask me these questions like ‘when did they do this?’ I just tell them to look it up. There are a lot of sources and there are people who like Mark Lewisohn, are book people who really know that shit and take it seriously. So I rely on them. The bonus is that I can occasionally add something in where I was there or I talked to a Beatle about it at the time, or when I heard a story from Paul or Ringo, something about a particular event or something that we all did together. So I get to add in personal bits and pieces, but it gives you the impression that it’s all my own collection and it’s not, it’s research.

SP: For “From Me to You,” as you had zero guidelines, how did you end up creating the show?

PA: Lots of different ways. I started off the beginning with a Peter and Gordon track, then they decided that wasn’t Beatles-centric enough and that they’d rather I started with something “Beatley” directly, which was okay. So then I would just take any Beatles song and follow it wherever it led, and I did that for a while until it started to drive me crazy! Then I thought of the alphabet idea, “The Beatles from A to Z” and I did those twenty-six shows, did that twice using the alphabet. Not in an encyclopedic sense, just simply in the sense that you take a letter and go, ‘What does this make me think of?’ and it was either a song or people and places, instruments, styles, all that stuff. You know when I got to “T” I didn’t do any songs; it was all about time signatures and how the Beatles made use of different time signatures. People seemed interested in that kind of stuff.

So I did that and then more recently I started this random thing where we pick a song completely at random. We assign every song a number and then generate a random number, it’s genuinely random. I mean, I pretend on the show that I’ve got a giant roulette wheel, but that, of course, is very virtual. I do genuinely pick whatever song it tells me to and talk about it. As I previously pointed out, I look it up and then talk about it! Sometimes there are songs that I haven’t even heard of. There’s quite a number of Beatles recordings that I have to look up, something from a movie or the solo careers. I’d never expected to be doing this. We’ve just done our 140th show which means it’s not that far off of three years because I’m always a couple of months ahead, which is really weird. I thought I would’ve run out of things to say by now. I do my best!

SP: With the channel, what is it like for you to continue the legacy of the Beatles?

PA: Well, it’s fun! It’s like so many things you do where you’re not sure if it’s gonna be cool or not, but you do it based on people’s reactions. Like when Gordon and I got back together, however many years ago that was. We hadn’t sung together for thirty-seven years and we got back together for a benefit. My friend Paul Shaffer, a keyboard player in New York, a genius, he’s the one who talked us into doing it. I was wondering if people really want to see these old guys trundle out and sound like they were twenty. And the answer turned out to be yes! Once we did it, you see how people are actually moved by the songs and it doesn’t feel like a stupid thing to do. It feels like it’s an honourable profession. So we did a few more gigs and I’m glad we did because Gordon died a year or two later.

So sort of the same as that, I wasn’t sure if the show would feel too retrospective or too “retro” in general. But as you know, I give out my email address at the end of every show and I get an awful lot of emails, quite a few thank yous. ‘Oh, it’s so great that you’re doing these songs, it’s great to hear you talk about them since you were there’, even if I wasn’t there personally and was just in that year. Again, I thought I’d do this for a bit and signed on for a year and now I’m coming into year three and it’s fun. Occasionally it’s a bit of a pain because as soon as I stop prerecording shows they run out and you realize that you have to go back in and write some more. The writing takes considerably longer than the recording. So being part of it feels like an honour, but I keep saying to people, ‘no I’m not a Beatles expert, I’m a Beatles fan’. Someone who was there at the time and can talk about that. But an expert? I’m not. There are people like Mark Lewisohn who are experts.

SP: What is an interesting or memorable email that you’ve received?

PA: There’s a lot of interesting ones. On the show the other day, I told a story I’d forgotten all about. It was a fan who told me in an email in which he recalled a particular evening when he’d run into John and Paul and Gordon and I all sitting in Paul’s Mini Cooper going to a party. That was one where the contents of an email reminded of an event that I’d forgotten ‘til they told the story and it all came back to me.

SP: One final question – What advice do you have for those who are interested in working in the music industry?

PA: Well, figure out what it is you like doing, you know, try everything. In terms of people who want to be a manager or a producer, being a producer, of course, is way easier than it ever was. In my day, if I wanted to be a producer, I had to find somebody who would ask me to produce and record and find somebody to pay for it. Then I had to find a studio that I could use and pay for, and musicians as well. Now, none of that is necessary. You want to be a producer? Sit at your laptop with your headphones on and come up with something that’s really cool and you’ll be a producer. You don’t have to have any money or other people, to be honest. I mean if you’ve got a sister who happens to be Billie Eilish that certainly will help, but Finneas really didn’t need anything else, they made that whole album in their bedroom. So that’s a huge plus.

For a manager? The answer for how to be a good manager is tragically simple. If you think about it, I got the first two managers ever into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Brian Epstein who managed the Beatles and Andrew Loog Oldham who managed the Rolling Stones. So, what that tells you is that the secret of being a great manager is the client. So that’s a tragically simple question. How do you become a great manager? Just discover the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, that’s my recommendation [laughs].

SP: Might be a difficult one to follow!

PA: It’s not easy to follow but it’s the best way to do it!

Thank you to Peter Asher for letting the Sundial Press have an interview! You can follow Mr. Asher’s upcoming performances at peterashermusic.com and the book version of “The Beatles from A to Zed” is now available for purchase. The Beatles Channel is available on Sirius XM, Channel 18.

 

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