For Christmas 1965, Paul McCartney presented his bandmates with a unique gift: a homemade record produced just for them, consisting of sampled songs, original sketches and avant-garde loops. “Something crazy, something left field, just for the other Beatles, a fun thing which they could play late in the evening,” he later said. With only three copies made, the discs are among the most rare Beatle-related collectibles. While these acetate pressings have almost certainly since worn out, an 18-minute segment of Unforgettable has recently surfaced, providing a glimpse of this experimental private mixtape from the Beatles’ most creatively fertile period.
For decades, all that was known about the recording were sketchy details provided by McCartney himself. “It was called Unforgettable and it started with Nat ‘King’ Cole singing ‘Unforgettable,'” he explained to historian Mark Lewisohn in 1995. “Then I came in over the top as the announcer: ‘Yes, unforgettable, that’s what you are! And today in Unforgettable …‘ It was like a magazine program: full of weird interviews, experimental music, tape loops, some tracks I knew the others hadn’t heard. It was just a compilation of odd things.” The unearthed portion includes an inventive selection of songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and Martha and the Vandellas, with McCartney assuming the role of a fast-talking New York DJ – perhaps a nod to the so-called “Fifth Beatle,” Murray the K.
At the time McCartney was living a central London townhouse belonging to the family of his girlfriend, Jane Asher. His tiny garret on the top floor, already crammed with gold records, instruments and other evidence of his global superstardom, now bore traces of his newfound fascination with tape loops. “I used to have a couple of Brenell tape recorders,” he told author Barry Miles, a friend from the period. “I used to experiment with them when I had an afternoon off, which was quite often. [The Beatles would] be playing in the evening … and there was often quite a bit of time when I was just in the house on my own so I had a lot of time for this. I wasn’t in a routine. I could stay up till three in the morning, sleep through till two in the afternoon, and often did. It was a very free, formless time for me. Formative yet formless. I didn’t have to be up for the baby, at that time there was none of that. So I would sit around all day, creating little tapes.”
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“It was a very free, formless time for me. … So I would sit around all day, creating little tapes.”
In the room next door lived Jane’s elder brother, Peter Asher, whose pop pedigree as one half of the hit-making harmony duo Peter & Gordon belied an intense interest in avant-garde art. He provided McCartney an entree into London’s underground music scene, exposing him to work by composers like Luciano Berio, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. “People were starting to lose their pure-pop mentality and mingle with artists,” McCartney recalled in the Beatles’ Anthology documentary. “A kind of cross-fertilization was starting to happen.”
McCartney would dub his own sound collages onto Philips cassettes – a new innovation – and play them at parties for particularly hip friends. “It was really a kind of stoned thing,” he told Miles. “You knew you’d be round someone’s house later that evening and if you had an interesting piece of music, it would be quite a blast, whether it be Ravi Shankar or Beethoven or Albert Ayler.” The process was so enjoyable that he toyed with the idea of releasing them as a solo album under the memorable title Paul McCartney Goes Too Far. Despite strong encouragement from John Lennon, Unforgettable would be the closest he ever came to such a full-length project in the Sixties.
Though the Beatles’ latest album, Rubber Soul, had only been released a few weeks prior on December 3rd, McCartney’s gift was likely intended to point the band towards new musical horizons for their next work. “It was a peculiar overall sound,” George Harrison once said of Unforgettable. “John, Ringo and I played it and realized Paul was on to something new. Paul has done a lot in making us realize that there are a lot of electronic sounds to investigate.” When they reconvened in the studio the following April to begin sessions for what would become Revolver, the first song they worked on was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” built on a bed McCartney’s tape loops.