What was all that about?
Had a bit of a Beatlesfest over the holidays. Among the books I got for Christmas were Ian McDonald’s monumental ‘Revolution in the Head‘ which gives recording details and provenance of everything the band recorded and Bill Harry’s account of the Merseybeat years: ‘Bigger than the Beatles’. He was the guy who chronicled the development of the burgeoning Liverpool music scene in the early sixties, principally by launching the pop music paper Mersey Beat which was influential in promoting the Fabs and providing coverage of the many post skiffle groups that operated around the city at the time. Inevitably this led to me getting some of the remastered CDs, notably the earlier stuff – Please Please Me, With The Beatles and Beatles for Sale, alongside the Backtrack CDs – all of which contained music I hadn’t really listened to since I put away my turntable a good few years ago.
Much to my surprise, a lot of the old excitement resurfaced; the flutter in the stomach whenever I heard the drum roll intro to She Loves You; Ringo’s drum fill in Ticket to Ride, the thud of the bass at the start of I Feel Fine; music and sounds that affected me in a way that nothing else ever has. I realised I can still recall, over 40 years later, when I first heard certain Beatles songs, where I was and what I was doing.
I also realised that middle aged fogies have always reminisced about their music and their times, and I thought I’d like to investigate whether the Beatles really were that special, or at least reflect on what they meant to me personally – alongside the multimillions for whom they marked a coming of age.
I think more books have been written on the Fab Four than perhaps any other musical topic and I don’t really want to get into their seminal influences on later fashion or music; this is more of a personal recollection – not particularly special or unique, except to me, and my history.
When my father died in 1957, my mother and I moved from Edinburgh to England, and ended up in 1959 in Southport, a seaside town just 20 miles north of Liverpool, and I went to school in Crosby, a northern suburb of Liverpool. Bizarrely, to outsiders, Southport folk, ‘Sandgrounders’ as they are known, kept fiercely separate from anything Liverpudlian; they considered they lived in Lancashire, and even today, decades after local government reorganisation placed them as part of Merseyside, there is a determination not to be labelled as Scousers in any way. When I took the commuter train to school, halfway between Southport and Liverpool, there was a sense that the ‘Southport lads’ and the guys who lived in the northern Liverpool suburbs of Litherland, Bootle and Seaforth were different breeds.
In 1962, when the Beatles started to take off, the music scene in Liverpool was invisible to me. I was ten and my focus was on the 11+ and whether I would be successful in winning a place at ‘the big school’. Music was Cliff and the Shadows and men with shiny suits on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Indeed, while my friends, particularly those from the Liverpool end, started to mention these Beatles, I stubbornly stuck to my support for Cliff and the Shads.
I don’t actually remember when I first heard the Beatles, but I think it would have been Please Please Me on the radio,which was released in January 63. It must have had an effect on me as my first Beatles memory is standing on Crosby station in February of that year, looking at a poster for a Helen Shapiro concert at Southport’s Odeon Cinema on March 1st, and noticing that the Beatles were on the bill.
Over the next 6 months, From Me to You and She Loves You were issued and by the time of their Royal Variety performance in November, I was hooked. So much so that With the Beatles would be the first LP I ever bought and waiting for each new single would be a major cause of excitement, really for the rest of the 60s.
I remember when Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields forever were released, by way of what must have been the original ‘videos’, on two consecutive nights on the BBCs regional news programme, ‘Look North’, first hearing ‘Hello, Goodbye’ one evening at school before some sixth year event, All you need is Love being premiered on the live satellite link up ‘Our World’ and Hey Jude making its debut on a Sunday Night David Frost programme.
I remember one Saturday morning when the band were returning from their first hugely successful American tour. The BBC treated it like a state occasion and carried live coverage from Heathrow airport where thousands of screaming fans were draped all over the viewing balconies. David Coleman provided the commentary, and as their plane hove into view on the flightpath It won’t be long now from their With the Beatles album was played. The household stopped to watch!
Every TV appearance was an event and caused genuine excitement. As the curtains drew back at the start of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, there in silhouette were the four famous moptops, till the lights raised to reveal Bruce Forsyth and several stagehands carefully posed with brushes and mops. I never understood the screaming of the girls, but I can still recall the undeniable and quite unique excitement I felt whenever I watched them perform. I saw all three of their films in the company of my best mate, Steve, a fellow fan. By the time it got to Let it Be, a rather sad epilogue, we made a conscious decision to see it together. It’s only as I’m writing this that I realise, by a twist of fate, the cinema in which we saw all three films was the same Southport Odeon in which they had appeared with Helen Shapiro. I thought of that tour again in the 70s when, as a Christmas student postman, I found myself delivering letters to Helen Shapiro, still recognisable, sleepy and in her housecoat, having moved to Southport after her marriage to impressario, Duncan Weldon.
I suppose these days it is difficult to recall, or even understand, how incredibly London-centric was the entertainment world in those times. To have anyone remotely local as a success was an incredible thing.
My mother, as a Liverpudlian, was particularly proud of ‘the boys’ as she called them, and of course, a major part of their early success was that they were the first pop band to appeal across the generation gap, partly due to Brian Epstein’s instinctive marketing of them. However, in the eye of the storm, as it were, I’m not sure we really appreciated how huge they had become, nor how connected to them we were by the accident of geography.
My mother had a schoolfriend who became a priest – Frank Danher; it turned out that his sister was Paul McCartney’s granny. Another priest friend worked in a parish in Speke and quite often talked of visiting a parishioner called Louise Harrison, who turned out to be George’s mum. During the sixties, folk recognised as coming from Liverpool were often asked if they knew the Beatles. If they replied yes, they were generally seen as shooting a line, but frequently it would be true as it really was quite a small and tight knit community in those days.
Again, it would be good to say that I was a part of the scene in the early sixties, but 20 miles was a long way, and as an eleven year old, I was really just too young to take full advantage of what was happening. Our school had produced two Merseybeat stars, both drummers – Chris Curtis of The Searchers and Dave Lovelady of The Fourmost – but they had left school before we arrived and got precious little recognition from our staid and reactionary music teachers. It’s really in retrospect that I see how lucky I was to be so near to it all, albeit a little unconsciously.
Perhaps the best way to cover it is to describe an event that was quite regular in my childhood – a trip to Liverpool with my mother.
We would get off the commuter train at the now defunct Exchange Station, and, my mother invariably heading for Marks and Spencers and George Henry Lee’s, we would walk down Moorfields, cross Dale Street and cut down Stanley Street. Towards the bottom of Stanley Street, we would pass Frank Hessy’s music shop, and then carefully cross the small side entry called Matthew Street. Then, across Whitechapel, we would pass NEMS with its modern looking radiograms in the window, and if Mum was feeling flush, we would have a coffee in the Kardomah Coffee House. It was decades later that I realised that this was more or less a prototype ‘Beatles Tour’ and that thousands of fans probably dreamt of walking those streets.
The thing was, what we were doing was nothing to do with the Beatles. It was merely a visit to town. When I was bought my first electric guitar, my mother took me into Hessy’s because it was the one place she knew that sold electric guitars. I’m not sure if I even knew that Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and eventually the rest of the Beatles had bought their own first instruments there. However, forty years later, when my avid guitarist son played the old guitar, far more effectively than I ever managed, I was delighted that it still played and that it retained what had become the iconic Frank Hessy label.
I never visited the Cavern, and, indeed, Matthew St was quite unprepossessing, a dark and dank narrow side street, chiefly notable for its fruit wholesalers. When I think of Matthew St, I don’t see the Cavern, I see slimy cobbles littered with cabbage leaves. When my friends and I gathered in the listening booths at NEMS to hear the latest singles or LP tracks, we didn’t do so to be in the footsteps of the Beatles, it was merely a case of that being the one store where we could hear new releases. And a coffee in the Kardomah was prompted, not by it having been a haunt of the Fabs, but by its strong coffee smelling air of distant places and the dashing modernity of its glass coffee cups and saucers!
Only later, in retrospect, did we realise we had been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, although it is still difficult to convince people how far those 20 miles from Southport to Liverpool really were in the 60s, in lots of ways.
So yes, the Beatles were special; they conquered the world by bringing excitement, musical innovation and inspiration to a world that was ready and waiting for it. Their music stands the test of time and the effect they had on us who were teenagers at the time was formative and positively traumatic.
However, realistically, despite our proximity, there was no way we joined them on their road from Liverpool to the universe; the best we can say is that we were close enough to recognise where they were coming from.