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Forty years ago today, the Beatles launched Apple Records. That trademark green apple logo appeared on albums by The Beatles and by other artists they helped discover. But it didn't take The Beatles long to prove they were better at making music than in running a business.

As part of the NPR series Echoes of 1968, Joel Rose has this story on Apple Records and its legacy.

JOEL ROSE: The Beatles introduced their new business venture at a press conference in New York City.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Musician): It's a business concerning records, films, and electronics. We want to set up a system whereby people who just want to make a film about anything don't have to go on their knees in somebody's office, probably yours.

ROSE: John Lennon described Apple Records and its parent company, Apple Corps, as a place where anybody with a good idea could get funding. If that sounds like a questionable business plan, keep in mind that the Beatles were making a lot of money in 1968.

Mr. DOUGLAS WOLK (Journalist): As far as I can tell, the idea behind Apple was a tax dodge.

ROSE: Douglas Wolk writes about music for Spin and Rolling Stone magazines, among others.

Mr. WOLK: The top tax rate in England at that time was enormous, and John Lennon said something to the effect that, well, we talked to our accountants, we realized we could either give the money to the government or we could put it into a business.

ROSE: The band's advisers reportedly recommended Beatles greeting cards or investing in real estate. The Beatles rejected those ideas, and just three months after it launched, Apple Records released its first single.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey Jude")

Sir PAUL MCCARTNEY (Musician): (Singing) Hey Jude, Don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better...

ROSE: From the beginning, the Beatles wanted to record other artists they liked in a no-pressure atmosphere, as Lennon and Paul McCartney explained in a 1968 television interview.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. LENNON: Well, we hope to make (unintelligible) free where people can just come and do and record.

Mr. McCARTNEY: It'll be big, I think.

Mr. LENNON: Like a top. We'll set it going and hope for the best.

ROSE: Apple put out three other singles on the same day it released "Hey Jude," including a song by Welsh singer Mary Hopkin that also topped the charts.

(Soundbite of song, "Those Were the Days")

Ms. MARY HOPKIN (Singer): (Singing) Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end. We'd sing and dance forever and a day. We'd live the life we choose. We'd fight and never lose. For we were young and sure to have our way.

ROSE: Apple Records wasn't the first label founded by musicians, but like most things The Beatles did, it attracted a lot of attention. The Apple Corps offices in London's Saville Row became a magnet for assorted freaks.

Mr. B.P. FALLON: If one had nothing to do of an afternoon in London, you'd go around to Apple and hang out.

ROSE: B.P. Fallon was 21 when The Beatles' publicist hired him to write biographical notes about Apple recording artists, including a then-unknown singer the label had signed named James Taylor. Fallon says that wasn't all he did.

Mr. FALLON: One of my jobs at Apple was to make sure that Paul McCartney's grass was of sufficiently good quality, which meant that one had to dutifully test out the samples of all these eager-beaver hash dealers. He never once complained about my choice.

ROSE: Fallon insists work did get done at Apple, but despite a string of initial hits, the company was a financial disaster. The film, electronics and clothing divisions didn't work out. And after The Beatles broke up, Apple seemed to exist mostly to sue people. It took its distributors, EMI and Capitol Records, to court over unpaid royalties. And it sued Apple Computer over trademark violations.

Bruce Spizer is the author of "The Beatles on Apple Records." He says it's Apple Computer and its ubiquitous iPod that seem closer today to what The Beatles were trying to do back in 1968.

Mr. BRUCE SPIZER (Author, "The Beatles on Apple Records"): Everything that John had envisioned - his key thing about the thing, which was going to be records films and electronics. Here we are 40 years later and we've got music, video and computer all tied together. And one of the companies that is exploiting this is Apple, although it's not The Beatles' Apple that is doing this now.

ROSE: Arguably, the real influence of Apple Records is symbolic. Before Apple, says music journalist Douglas Wolk, most artist-run labels were just vanity projects.

Mr. WOLK: After Apple Records, there's this idea floating around that the musical genius's genius doesn't just extend to their own work. That they can spot genius in other people, that they can promote other people's work.

ROSE: It's an idea that gained currency in the 1980s and '90s, as musicians showed they could successfully run record labels, too. Today, artists are taking on even more of the responsibilities that used to fall on the suits at record labels. And that is our story tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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