The eclectic non-Beatles output of Apple Records was recently collected in a series of CD reissues and one big box set, the latter featuring bonus tracks and rare singles from the Apple roster. One of the people who guided Apple from its inception is Peter Asher, a former child actor and singing star (as one half of the British pop duo Peter & Gordon). Through his association with Paul McCartney—who dated Peter’s sister Jane—Asher became the head of A&R at Apple and was directly responsible for signing James Taylor, who released his debut album on Apple with Asher producing. Asher later left the company—taking Taylor with him—when Apple’s original ideals of artistic exploration threatened to be overwhelmed by its many side businesses and the influence of brash American manager Allen Klein. He went on to be a go-to producer for rootsy rock acts like Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and 10,000 Maniacs, and spent a long tenure as an executive at Sony Records. Asher spoke with The A.V. Club about those early Apple days, what went wrong, and how it could’ve gone differently.
The A.V. Club: Do you remember when you first got the call to come to Apple?
Peter Asher: It wasn’t exactly like that. I was friends with Paul McCartney at the time and would spend some time at his house hanging out and just talking. That was when this idea for starting Apple was being talked about. And the company, even before it had a name, included a record label. I was in on some of the discussions. I remember Paul drawing some quite elaborate diagrams about how the company might work and what its aims would be, so it was kind of gradual. I was in on the discussions, and at the time I was becoming a record producer myself. I’d quit making records as a singer and was very interested in production. I was producing some things with Paul Jones from Manfred Mann, and Paul McCartney actually played on some of those for me as a studio musician, so he was aware of what I was doing and thought it might be something I could possibly be good at.
When they got what would become Apple together, first he asked if would I be interested in producing some records for it, and I said of course I would. Then as it became more defined and more real and had a name, he said, “Would you in fact like to be head of A&R for Apple Records, the label,” and I said, “Of course, I would love to.” So I was there kind of from the beginning, and my role gradually became formalized.
AVC: What sort of input did the various members of The Beatles have into the A&R process?
PA: I had a meeting once a week, an A&R meeting, and as many as were around would show up. And they all had a degree of input. They were all quite tolerant in a sense, by which I mean they were sympathetic to each other’s projects. So if John really wanted to make his album with Yoko, or Paul really wanted to go and make a record with a brass band… whatever it was, they all kind of went “fine.” Generally it was a live-and-let-live kind of philosophy, though everyone had comments and thoughts. You know, I brought in James Taylor, and Mal Evans brought in The Iveys, and George wanted to make what amounted to a novelty record with “The King Of Fuh,” and Ringo wanted to sign John Tavener, the classical composer, and the label boss Ron Kass wanted the Modern Jazz Quartet. Anything that seemed to have musical value, and that we all thought was a good idea, The Beatles acquiesced. There were some spirited discussions, but I don’t ever remember there being a situation with someone going, “I want to sign this,” and another person going, “No you can’t.”
AVC: How important were the business prospects of these signings?
PA: Not much, in the sense that we never had conversations that would happen at a record company now, and would’ve happened at a real record company then—you know, about sales forecasts and all that kind of stuff. It was more like: Do we like this, do we think it should come out, do we think it should get made? Yes. Which, to be fair, was how some of the other great labels at the time were run. Like A&M. The genuinely independent labels that were run by musicians, that’s how they worked as well. It was much later on that things got corporate and business prospects became a big part of the equation.
AVC: How were sales, by and large?
PA: You know what, I don’t really know. I mean, obviously Mary Hopkin sold zillions, James Taylor sold a modest amount, probably Jackie Lomax didn’t sell nearly as much as any reasonable businessman would’ve expected him to, for reasons I never quite understood. So like most record companies, we had successes and failures.
AVC: Was there one album that came out during your tenure at Apple that you were particularly proud of?
PA: Well the one I would have to be most proud of, of course, was James. I don’t want to sound self-serving, but obviously that’s the one I produced, and that’s the one that became the basis for the next 30 years of my career. So that’s the one I’m most proud of. The one I think is probably the undiscovered gem would be Jackie Lomax’s album.
AVC: Why do you think James Taylor’s first album didn’t do as well as the later albums that you worked on with him?
PA: I just think it took a while for people to kind of get the message about how good he was. I was really anxious with this record to impress people, and I think as a consequence, I actually may have sort of overproduced the record a bit, in terms of over-decorating it with arrangements. I was really going, “I’ve got to make people pay attention to this. This guy is so good, I must make them listen.” Then when I made less of a conscious effort in that direction on the next album, with Sweet Baby James, that’s when of course they did start listening. I don’t know. Sometimes people’s careers take off on their first albums, sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t matter, because they go back and rediscover all the wonderful songs. So now when James does “Carolina In My Mind” or “Something In The Way She Moves” in concert, they’re among the most well-known songs, even though they were on an album that at the time was not a big hit. If you have the right career, none of that matters in the end.
AVC: How was the transition for you from performing to producing and being an executive? Did you bring your experience from the other end into it in a significant way, or was it a whole new process?
PA: Both. It was a new process of course. Being involved in any kind of business aspect was new. But as a producer, did it help to have been an artist and on the receiving end of instructions from a producer and an engineer? Absolutely it did. When I became a manager, did it help to have experience as an artist? Of course. And the same remained true throughout the rest of my career, when I became vice president of Sony. Did it help having been all of the above: producer, manager, artist? Yes. In any business, the more you learn, the more sympathetic you can be to other people’s positions. So it all helps.
AVC: It’s been said that your decision to leave Apple was exacerbated by the hiring of Allen Klein as the label’s manager. Is that true?
PA: Yes. I knew Allen by reputation from New York. I didn’t think he would be the right person to run Apple. I didn’t think his style was in any way Apple-appropriate. In addition to that, the fact that John was completely convinced that Allen was the right person for the job and Paul was convinced with equal tenacity and determination that he wasn’t meant that Allen Klein’s arrival drove a giant wedge between two people who already were having quite a number of arguments. So it seemed to me that the future looked very bleak with Allen Klein at the helm. Also, James Taylor met Allen briefly at that time as well and didn’t particularly like his approach, so I decided the best thing to do would be to resign and take James with me, sort of steal away in the night. So that’s what we did. I wrote a letter of resignation, thanked everyone, and left.
AVC: Did that go over okay?
PA: I don’t really know. I mean, I think they had bigger fish to fry. The whole place was in a bit of chaos then, because the arguments were getting kind of intense, and Allen Klein was storming around the building being Allen Klein. Everyone was scared for their job, so I think us leaving had little impact one way or the other.
AVC: Was Apple, the way it was set up, ever going to be a viable entity in the long-term?
PA: I think it could’ve, definitely, yes. If the board of directors had shown a bit more unanimity, and if this particular Klein issue hadn’t come up to absolutely divide them into two camps, and if some of the other aspects of Apple, like the shop, and the clothes, and Magic Alex’s electronics division… some of that got a bit out of hand and cost money that shouldn’t have been spent. But do I think Apple Records could’ve survived in the way that other classic artist-founded labels like A&M did? I see no reason why not.
AVC: What to you is the key to running a successful music label? If someone were starting one today versus, say, 40 years ago, how would you advise them?
PA: Well, I think the Apple approach was not to have a particular musical identity, other than what we hoped was a taste identity: that it’s just all good stuff. Whether it’s the Modern Jazz Quartet or John Tavener or rock ’n’ roll bands or a silly comedy thing like “The King Of Fuh” or John and Yoko naked. I like the fact that Apple was, genre-wise, incredibly broad-based. It was just anything we liked and thought people should hear. I would think that if somebody could now get the attention that Apple got—which of course was the huge advantage that Apple had, because it was The Beatles—people would actually check out the Modern Jazz Quartet, who they knew nothing about and even though they didn’t like jazz. So we were able to do it because of who we were. It would be great if somebody could do that again. Of course, now it could be done purely as an online venture, with considerably less infrastructure and cost. I hope Apple contributed to some of the broadmindedness that some independent labels do exhibit now.