My remix of the "With the Beatles" album cover

This post is strictly for the Beatles fans. In particular, fans who enjoy a certain kind of parlour game that starts “What if…”

Yes, two little words that propel you into a parallel universe of speculation, alternative histories and unusual outcomes. “What if the Beatles had…”

Mind you, you rarely hear “What if” questions along the lines of the following half a dozen:

  1. What if the Beatles had come from Lytham St Annes instead of Liverpool?
  2. What if John and Yoko had never met?
  3. What if their manager Brian Epstein wasn’t gay or posh or from a family who owned a big record store, and was in fact an Irishwoman from Ballyjamesduff called Bríona Ni Mhuimhneacháin?
  4. Or what if, after John had failed all his O-levels, this time his aunt Mimi and his headmaster didn’t bother to intervene, so this time he wasn’t accepted into the Liverpool College of Art after all and he ended up working as a stagehand in the Blackpool Tower Circus with his cousin Stanley Parkes, each earning an average of £8 2s 11d a week?
  5. Or what if John’s mum Julia couldn’t play the banjo or ukulele, preferring instead to make prize-winning apricot jam for the Women’s Institute, and she passed on these skills to her decidedly non-musical son, who subsequently channelled his energies into becoming a leading marmalade artisan?
  6. Or what if Paul McCartney and Pete Best, instead of merely being deported from Germany in November 1960 by investigating officer Herr Gerkins (I kid you not), were actually banged up in a Hamburg prison for three years after being found guilty of attempting to burn down the Bambi-Filmkunsttheater cinema on Paul-Roosen Strassse where they’d been staying (after they’d set fire to a condom in one of the cinema’s back corridors) and during their incarceration they joined a circle of hardened fellow arsonists and perfected a wide range of fire-starting techniques, which they subsequently employed in a notorious spate of blazes across Baden-Württemberg from 1964 to 1967?

No. The typical questions in the “What if the Beatles…” parlour game are usually shorter, far more tame and predictable. Questions along the lines of:

What if the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ had been just one record instead of a double album?

Fantasy Record Producer

This type of game ought to be called Fantasy Record Producer: your role is to come up with a list of the band’s best tracks within certain restrictions. For the “White Album” question above, obviously you’re limited to the tracks from that particular album, with the need to cull about half of them in order to fit the remainder onto two sides of 12″ vinyl. That’s the restrictions.

Or what if them eejits in EMI hadn’t forced the group to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a double A-side single, and in this parallel universe these two tracks were held back instead for their natural home – on the “Sgt Pepper” album which was being recorded around the same time?

In other words, which existing album tracks would you drop from”Sgt Pepper” in order to squeeze in “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields”, keeping within the time limits of the 12″ vinyl format while maintaining the album’s overall flow and integrity as a sort of early concept album?

The 1970s Beatles

Sometimes, though, the question is much broader, along the lines of:

If the Beatles hadn’t broken up in 1970, what tracks would have been on their subsequent albums during that decade?

This question can also be slimmed down and reformulated as:

What kind of compilation album would be based on the former Beatles’ solo output from the 1970s?

For example, the Telegraph’s chief music critic Neil McCormick once suggested two sides of 12″ vinyl using these very rules. Similarly, Stephen Baxter wrote a short story called “The Twelfth Album”:

It is about an imaginary twelfth album recorded by the Beatles, called God. The album features songs that were written and recorded as solo projects by the group’s members in reality, but in a parallel universe where the Beatles did not split up following the release of Let It Be, resulting in these songs being recorded by the group.

YouTube and other websites are littered with such what-if lists and audio compilations. But these wishlists are almost invariably based on actual music – on existing tracks recorded by the Fab Four during their post-Beatles careers.

Yet the “What if they’d not broken up” type of question is like a Russian doll. Open it up and you’ll find it contains at least one more what-if: if they had stayed together, how on earth can you predict the exact kind of music they would subsequently have recorded within that particular set of musical combinations and interactions and collaborations (even if we accept the line that by then Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were largely composing as individuals)?

To take a fairly simple example. It’s May ’69. The Beatles have just finished recording the “Let It Be” album. This time there’s no decision by one or more parties to break up. What do they do next? Would they really declare a ceasefire and go back into the studio a few months later to make the gloriously sublime “Abbey Road” album? Why bother? Maybe they would have decided instead to keep rehashing the “back-to-basics pseudo-live” Let It Be shite for the rest of the year. Or have a long holiday in Morocco.

Between their breakup and 1975 the former Beatles produced 22 albums. But if they had stayed together, would they really have been so prolific during those five or six years? Would Ringo still have felt the need to do a solo album or two? Would George still have been compelled to put down an entire triple LP’s worth of solo material?

Would Yoko have had such a major and decisive role as an inspired producer (as she clearly did on, say, Lennon’s “Imagine” sessions)? And why on earth would a Paul McCartney sans Wings continue to structure so many of his 1970s songs in such a way to take full advantage of the distinctive stacked harmonies of Linda and Denny Laine, when as musicians these two people would almost certainly be nowhere near the 1970s “non breakup” Beatles lineup?

The ‘lost’ album

Sometimes the “What if they’d not broken up” question is posed along the lines of a “lost album” (try googling “beatles lost album 1977” without the quotation marks and you get “About 18,400,000 results”. I haven’t a clue why 1977 of all years, the heyday of punk, seems to be the peak for such “lost” Beatles albums).

Again, this is usually not really about individual tracks that were actually lost or erased or stolen, but simply about creating new compilations and running orders of fictional albums based on existing tracks. Dozens of websites and online groups are devoted to creating the best Beatles albums that never were, list after list after list.

Then again, there are real “lost” albums’ worth of material out there too, sort of: all those Beatles bootlegs, home demos, rehearsals, outtakes, concert performances, sessions for the BBC, early rough mixes, Decca audition tapes and so on. And I know what you’re thinking. Not: “What if we created alternative Beatles anthologies?” or “What if we did a total remix of these tapes?” or “Where can you download it all for free?”

Nah. What you’re thinking is: “What if they hadn’t sacked poor Pete Best?”

Or: “Who are the Beatles?”

Or: “What’s a parlour?”

The consolation: getting better

Underneath it all, these virtual album games are a consolation, as in consoling. They come from an alternative future with “better” outcomes. Where the Beatles stayed together, where the Beatles never grew up or grew apart or squabbled or died.

If these virtual albums come from a perfect future they are also a reminder of an absolutely analogue past, where songs weren’t streamed or torrented or turned into isolated MP3 files. Songs were still collections, curated by somebody else (unless it was a DIY anthology on a cassette tape), in a particular fixed order that was exactly one or two albums long.

(Or three if you’re the Clash.)