Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: 'The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label'

Like most things Beatles-related, the story of Apple Records is well known and well documented. The story of Zapple records, however, tends to be more of a footnote in Beatles lore. It was the experimental subsidiary of Apple masterminded by Paul McCartney and Barry Miles, co-owner of Swinging London’s famed Indica Bookshop.

Zapple was a bit like that old story about the blind men and the elephant. Miles felt the label should be used to document the works of underground poets and intellectuals. McCartney pictured it as an outlet for his own watered down avant-garde pretentions. John Lennon imagined it as a means to document his existence with Yoko Ono. George Harrison thought it was a nuisance.

Because it offered little in the way of traditional entertainment, Zapple is less famous for the contents of its discs, more so for its controversial Beatles associations: Lennon’s penis on the cover of Two Virgins, Harrison’s plagiarism of Bernie Krause’s synthesizer squawks on Electronic Sound, etc.

Even Barry Miles seems somewhat unsure of how to find a way into Zapple in his new book. Beginning and ending abruptly, The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label is only intermittently the story of the label he ran. Each chapter in this brief book (which includes lots of photos and entire-pages devoted to pull quotes) is focused on a particular topic that took place during his days in The Beatles’ inner circle. Some of this is not related to Zapple directly, such as the arrival of some Hell’s Angels scumbags at Apple (on Harrison’s misguided invitation), Lennon’s drugs problems, and quite a bit about Apple’s shambling business. More on-topic chapters occasionally veer from The Beatles, as Miles discusses working with poets such as Allen Ginsburg, Charles Olsen, and Charles Bukowski for the label.

As much as the narrative ping-pongs, it’s consistently interesting and pulses with Miles’s insider knowledge. McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison sometimes come off as rather unsavory. McCartney’s treatment of the Apple staff could be cruel and Harrison passing off Krause’s work as his own is downright criminal, no matter how unlistenable that work may be. More often, they seem na├»ve, but not distastefully so (Miles only seems to dislike Allen Klein, which is pretty par for the course). No matter their own ambitions for Apple and Zapple, McCartney and Lennon did seem to genuinely want to use their money and resources to help powerless, unknown artists who could never get their work placed with a more conventional company. That is the heart at the core of The Apple Diaries.
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