With Every Mistake
With Every Mistake
Everyone makes mistakes. But when you are a Beatle, a small misstep can get broadcast across the globe. The following is the story of one confrontational encounter with a pressman that became international news for George Harrison.
The year was 1968. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in New York City for four days that May unveiling The Beatles new company Apple. Meanwhile, George and Ringo Starr took the opportunity to attend the 21st annual Festival International Du Film in Cannes, France. The festival was scheduled to run from 10-24 May. The main event for the two Beatles was the premiere of Joe Massot’s psychedelic film Wonderwall for which George had composed and recorded the soundtrack. George’s score juxtaposed psychedelic rock with his passion for Indian classical music.
George had met Massot the previous year but was initially hesitant when the director offered him the job. When Massot promised to give him free reign, the Beatle soon began watching rushes at Twickenham Film Studios and timing out the music needed. George recorded the rock music portion of his soundtrack in London between 22 November 1967 and 5 January 1968, moving between EMI Studios, Abbey Road, and De Lane Lea Studios in Soho. As he would in years to come, George drew together an assortment of his musician friends including The Remo Four, Eric Clapton and Starr.1 He had originally hoped to record the Indian music for the soundtrack in Bombay before the new year, but, due to the film company balking at the potential costs, it was postponed.2 George sent his friend and sitarist Shambhu Das a telegram on 29 December with the green light, asking him to arrange the sessions plus accommodation.3
On 7 January, George flew to Bombay where he held sessions from 9-13 January with an ensemble of local musicians assembled by Das, a fellow disciple of Ravi Shankar.4 Returning to London in the afternoon of 16 January, he completed recording and mixing of the soundtrack during final sessions at EMI.5 The closing mixing session was completed on 11 February before The Beatles completed work on John’s “Hey Bulldog” the same evening. A left-over Indian piece from the Bombay sessions became the B-Side of The Beatles next single: “Lady Madonna” b/w “The Inner Light”.1 With his work done for Wonderwall, George returned to India with the rest of his band to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. John and George, who stayed the longest, left the ashram on 10 April. George and his wife Pattie stayed in India to visit with Ravi Shankar and returned to London on 22 April.6
On 15 May, a day before George, Ringo and his wife Maureen flew to the South of France, accompanied by Apple’s Peter Brown.7 This same evening, they attended the screening of Michael Sarne’s British drama Joanna, where they brushed shoulders with the likes of Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate and Mia Farrow (all of whom were in Cannes to promote their new film Rosemary’s Baby). Ringo had befriended Farrow in Rishikesh, India, in February. While Farrow was subsequently in London to film Secret Ceremony with Elizabeth Taylor, Ringo and Maureen met her on at least three occasions. First, he danced with her at a party at the Dorchester Hotel following the premiere of Around The World In 80 Days on 23 March.8 On 6 May they spent a social day together in Surrey (including George and Pattie) and then attended a London screening of Rosemary’s Baby the following day (also attended by Polanski and Tate). Ringo and Maureen were also friendly with Taylor and her husband Richard Burton whom they had come to know while filming Candy in Rome the previous December. Interconnections like these abound in Beatles’ history.
The following morning, George and Pattie flew to France. Pattie changed from an attractive pantsuit to a two-tone mini dress for the evening festivities, maintaining her floppy sun hat. Although the premiere was not until the next evening, the two famous couples gathered with starring actress Jane Birkin and other cast members on a waterfront pier for publicity photographs. At the rear, someone held aloft a large sign with the name of the film and credits written in French. The group then boarded a yacht and spent a pleasant evening sailing around the bay.
The premiere of Wonderwall in Cannes on 17 May marked George’s first solo work outside The Beatles. George must have been proud to have completed a project he was not sure he could tackle seven months earlier. For the occasion, George and Ringo sported ruffled shirts under black suits, Maureen a white mini dress with matching scarf and Pattie a knockout white jumpsuit. Although none of the compositions that ended up on the Wonderwall Music LP (released 1 November 1968) hold a candle to George’s work with or after The Beatles, this was an important first step to establish himself as a musician in his own right. Most of the tracks are partially formed musical ideas rather than finished songs, yet they are effective enough as a backdrop to the visuals. Undoubtedly, this experience helped prepare George for his role as record producer in the coming months and years for artists such as Jackie Lomax, Billy Preston and Doris Troy.
Following the premiere, the two couples drove up the coast to attend a party at La Pignata restaurant in Fabron on the outskirts of Nice. The party was thrown by French music producer Eddie ‘Barclay’ Ruault for his artist Johnny Hallyday.9 (John and Paul attended a Johnny Hallyday concert in Paris, October 1961, during a birthday trip for John that excluded George).10 Thirty-two-year-old French photographer Charles Bébert happened to be attending the gathering and could hardly believe his eyes when two Beatles walked by him into the restaurant around 3:00am. Inside, the party was crowded, and The Beatles only stuck around for thirty minutes or so. Sensing the opportunity was about to slip through his fingers, Bébert took his chance to photograph the couples leaving. What ensued next is not entirely clear. Bébert accused George of purposefully tripping him causing him to tumble, scrape his knee and require seven stitches. George undoubtedly resented having a flash bulb go off in his face during his holiday evening on the French Riviera, but Bébert’s side of the story was most certainly exaggerated to make his case in the ensuing lawsuit. Indeed, by the following January the story was now that George “rushed at him, pushed him in the back and then tripped him so that he fell, broke his camera and suffered a knee injury needing hospital treatment.”11 It is true that George was known for being gruff to those who intruded on his privacy, but it seems unlikely that he would have turned so aggressive for such a trivial transgression. Apparently, it was not even Bébert who initially filed the complaint over the incident but a lawyer friend, Mr Rivoire. Bébert did not feel he had the financial resources to take on one of the most famous pop stars on the planet.12
The Film Festival that year was already embroiled in conflict. Even before the Fab Duo arrived in France, the country had seen strikes and demonstrations by French youth and factory workers, and French critics were refusing to review the films in solidarity with them.13 The civil unrest was pushing back against what they saw as a decade-strong traditionalist, autocratic government led by President Charles de Gaulle 14. Actors, producers and directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, withdrew their films and led a demonstration in a screening hall on 18 May, holding the curtain closed to prevent the showing of Spain’s Peppermint Frappé. The Cannes Festival “collapsed in chaos” and the next day the rest of the festival was canceled altogether.13 By late-morning on Sunday 19 May nearly all air traffic in and out of France had been canceled or grounded.15 According to the July issue of the Beatles Book Monthly magazine, George and Pattie left Cannes on the last direct flight to London, while Ringo and Maureen had to take a more circuitous route via Brussels.
Back in London, the events of this brief French vacation drifted out of George and Ringo’s minds as they buckled down to the recording sessions that would yield The Beatles double LP. Thirty years later, George had no recollection of the trip at all until he was reminded by Derek Taylor’s liner notes for the CD reissue of his Wonderwall Music LP and “until I saw the photos of us with a rather nice young lady called Jane Birkin who was in the movie.”4 Given that the incident in France did not seem to register much with George, it was likely with surprise that on 19 November he was summoned to appear in court in Nice, France, on 21 January 1969 on charges of assaulting photographer Charles Bébert. In addition to the assault charge, Bébert was seeking damages of £1250 for bodily harm and damage to his camera.16
Come 21 January 1969, George was in the thick of recording sessions for what would become the Let It Be LP. Although George had quit the band on 10 January, he rejoined the band ten days later when sessions switched from Twickenham Film Studios to Apple’s own basement studio. The following day, filming resumed for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s companion documentary. When George was meant to be in the Nice Court of Justice, he was rock n’ rolling with The Beatles at 3 Savile Row. In Peter Jackson’s epic 2021 Get Back documentary, footage from this day presents John reading aloud an article in a mock-presenter voice about George’s trial from the London Evening Standard to the amusement of his fellow Beatle. A Paris lawyer attended the trial to represent his Liverpudlian client in absentia. Bébert was there in person to witness George being fined £85 (1000 francs) against the assault charge, which could have yielded a maximum penalty of five-years’ imprisonment. Bébert’s damages claim for £1250 had been settled out of court beforehand. The photographer was awarded only £325 (5000 francs).10 George, asked for his reaction to the trial result while leaving the Beatles’ session that evening, simply responded, “so be it.”17 The incident may have been settled there, but the story has one final happy twist.
Following the filmed January 1969 sessions, The Beatles continued to record new material until May for what would become their Abbey Road LP. In March, George and Pattie faced more court proceedings following a drug bust at their home on the day of Paul and Linda McCartney’s wedding. In addition to The Beatles’ sessions, George was also producing sessions for Billy Preston’s Encouraging Words LP. When the album was wrapped up at the end of May, George and Pattie took a much-needed holiday to Sardinia. According to the July 1969 issue of the Beatles Book Monthly, George and Pattie flew via Nice on 31 May, staying over for two days. Bébert, who found out George was in France, showed up at the airport on 2 June with photographer friend Gilbert Pressenda.9 Pressenda captured two photographs for posterity. In the first, George does not recognize Bébert and seems wary of shaking the photographer’s hand. By the second photograph, the connection has been made and George gives a smile for the camera. George did not go out of his way to make amends, but a resolution of sorts had been reached. “With every mistake we must surely be learning,” George had written months before. The same day, the story hit the French tabloids and London’s Evening Standard reported on the reconciliation in a short news item titled “George patches it up”.18
1. Korinth, Axel; Dieckmann, Ed; Caroselli, Antonio. A Is For Apple Vol 1: 1966-1968 (2015) and A Is For Apple Vol 2: The Winter of Discontent January to March 1969 (2017).
2. Letter from George Harrison to Shambhu Das written 30 November 1967.
3. The Beatles Anthology. 2000 (page 280).
4. Beatles Book Monthly Nos 55 & 56 (February & March 1968).
5. Disc And Music Echo 20 January 1968.
6. Melody Maker 27 April 1968.
7. Daily Express 16 May 1968.
8. Sunday Mirror 31 March 1968.
10. Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years – Extended Special Edition: Volume 1: Tune In. 2013.
11. Evening Standard (London) 21 January 1969.
13. The Montreal Star 21 May 1968.
15. The Guardian (London) 20 May 1968.
16. Daily News (New York) 20 November 1968.
17. Daily Mail 22 January 1968.
18. Evening Standard (London) 2 June 1969.
About the author:
Obadiah Jones is a musician and researcher originally from Colorado, based in London. A graduate of The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (BA Hons), where he earned a one-on-one songwriting session with Sir Paul McCartney, Obadiah has been a life-long Beatles fan and has covered every song in their catalogue on his accounts @beatlescovers (Tik Tok) and @thembeatlescovers (Instagram). Obadiah is one half of the acclaimed Country/Americana duo O&O.