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COVER STORY : Been There, Done That : The latest wave of Beatlemania is being taken in stride at Apple, a onetime chaotic but now low-key record company.

<i> David Gritten, who lives outside London, is a regular contributor to Calendar</i>

At the height of its fame in the late 1960s, the Beatles’ record company, Apple Corps Ltd., was a public spectacle of creative chaos.

Situated on Savile Row, Apple became a magnet for musicians, artists, filmmakers and various eccentrics to pitch their ideas--and with any luck see them become reality, thanks to free-flowing Beatle funds.

These wanna-bes would wait for days, weeks, even months for a pitch meeting with a Beatle. This was not easy; the Fab Four were making the “White Album,” George Harrison was busy on projects with the Hare Krishna sect, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono were organizing their bed-ins for peace. The reception area at Apple became a crowded mass of anxious humanity.

“I used to tell them all it was a three-ring circus, and they should enjoy it because it would never happen again,” recalls Derek Taylor, who joined the Beatles as press officer in 1964, then performed the same role at Apple from 1968-70. “Those were not teetotal times, so I’d wander around with a bottle of [whiskey]. By 3 in the afternoon, a lot of those people had forgotten what they’d come in for.”

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It was, as Paul McCartney said memorably, “controlled weirdness,” an exercise in what he jokingly termed “Western communism.” Lennon once defined Apple as the kind of place you could go to seek backing if you wanted to film a glass of water.

But something had to give, and in 1970 the Beatles, over-stressed by the demands of Apple and individual projects, split up. The company sought administration to put it on a sounder financial footing.

Now fast-forward a generation. It’s 1995, and once again Apple is center stage--and, once again, the media in Britain cannot get enough of all things Beatlish.

The country’s leading rock magazines, Q and Mojo, have Harrison, McCartney and Ringo Starr on their covers, along with lengthy articles about their reunion and the “Anthology” CDs and television series. Q, alluding to the fact that there is one Beatle fewer these days, has nicknamed them “the Threetles.”

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Two national tabloid newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Sun, splashed reunion pictures of the trio, taken by Paul’s wife, Linda McCartney, across their center pages on the very same day. Both papers excitedly (and wrongly) labeled their pictures “exclusive.”

Even the broadsheets have been getting in on the act, some voicing doubts about the artistic wisdom of the reunion. The Guardian’s review section carried a cover story headlined “Help!,” while the European’s magazine cover superimposed the trio on the legendary zebra crossing at Abbey Road, with the caption, “Let It Be: Should the Beatles Come Back?”

ITV, the British TV channel which airs “The Beatles Anthology” beginning Nov. 26, has started a massive campaign of promotional ads. A poster for the series has been unveiled on billboards; designed by artists Magda Archer and Peter Quinnell, it is a montage of Beatles songs, reminiscent of the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover. It is full of visual puns and thus contains a walrus, a silver hammer, a helter skelter (a slide-like British carnival ride), and, at its center, a green pepper emblazoned with sergeant’s stripes.

In the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, no fewer than eight ABC-TV film crews have descended on the city and are competing among themselves for Beatles-related stories tied to the U.S. television premiere of “Anthology,” according to Bill Heckle, who runs a tour company specializing in Beatle locations. “It’s been pretty crazy,” Heckle said.

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But then in Liverpool, Beatlemania has never completely died down. Tourists still visit the city, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, as well as the houses where the Beatles grew up. As for the Cavern Club, where the mop-tops first came to prominence, Heckle, who also runs the club, says, “It’s been packed out every night for the last four years. Even on Monday nights, we always have to close the doors.”

The primary London destination for Beatle fans is the Abbey Road studios, where the Beatles recorded their hits over an eight-year period. The studios, owned by EMI, which releases the Beatles’ recorded output in Britain on the Parlophone label, have not been open to the public since 1984.

But any day of the week you can still see tourists photographing the studios and walking across the zebra crossing featured on the “Abbey Road” album cover. “They’re mostly Americans and Japanese,” Heckle says. “We feel lucky we’ve had no fatalities. The tourists just jump onto the crossing, not realizing they should wait for approaching cars to stop first. We’ve had to give people instructions about waiting until the road’s clear.”

Taylor, who has been back at Apple full time since the summer to prepare for the “Anthology” onslaught, is not surprised by any of this. “Beatlemania is a very real thing,” he says. “It’s a strain that dies down for a time, then before you know where you are, wham! It’s up and at ‘em again.”

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Apple, though, is a very different company these days. In its first years it was freewheeling, apparently chaotic, and very much in the public eye. Now it is a low-key, business-like operation, run from a four-story terraced house in a quiet square not far from Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. The only indication you have arrived at the right place is a piece of paper next to the doorbell, on which someone has written the word Apple in ballpoint pen.

Inside, the atmosphere is quiet and efficient; but for the Beatle posters dotted around and the dozens of gold discs, one might be in an insurance office or a merchant bank.

The genial Taylor, who still refers to the Beatles as “the boys,” has long been known as Apple’s front man--but insists that Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ former road manager and now Apple’s company secretary, is the true keeper of the flame.

“He has been collecting photos and film footage of the Beatles since 1971,” Taylor says. “He had the idea back then for some kind of visual documentary about the boys, which was to be called ‘The Long and Winding Road.’ But it never happened until now.”

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Aspinall, who went to school with McCartney and Harrison in Liverpool, is a famously reclusive figure. “But he’s had to be very cautious,” Taylor says. “He’s dealing with many, many layers of intellectual property--and he has to defend it in a wicked world. He’s always been terrifically good in ensuring fair play for all.”

Mainly, this has meant clearing up lawsuits--some of them between the Beatles themselves. Then there have been battles with outside elements--including business manager Allan Klein, the Apple computer company, EMI Records and the producers of the stage show “Beatlemania.”

“But by the mid-1980s, most of the problems had been ironed out,” Taylor says. “And then, at the end of the ‘80s, Neil and Paul started talking about a documentary from the early days when the Beatles were the Quarrymen all the way up to the group’s breaking up. ‘Anthology’ evolved from there. It just grew, like Topsy.”

The tranquil atmosphere inside Apple belies the fact that rampant Beatlemania is rearing its head once more. “Yes, it’s one of those times,” Taylor agrees. “George has taken off for somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere while all this craziness is going on. The rest of us can handle things--the other principals, Neil and me.

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“You must remember, we’ve all been here before.”


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