Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Tale of Four Beatles - Part I

by Billy Shepherd

Liverpool is a city of 750,000 people, but it took just four of them to start a trend which has shaken the entertainment world to its roots. Their names: George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Now universally known as THE BEATLES.

A strange name for a group of entertainers. If you had mentioned it to most people just one year ago, they would have immediately thought of a lot of creepy-crawly insects. Now, it can only mean the creators of a phenomenon known as the "Liverpool Sound." Four fantastic crowd-pullers, who are fast achieving international recognition as the leaders of British beat music. One of the few pop-performing outfits to make managers all over the country wish fervently that their theatres were equipped with elastic-sided walls. The cause of great jubilation at E.M.I. Record Company, who have them under a long-term contract and many regrets at Decca Record Company, who turned them down. But then, it's very unlucky to tread on just one beatle, let alone four!

Let's all go back to a Liverpool primary school named Dovedale, where a happy-go-lucky nipper of just seven years was doing his best to master the rudiments of precisely HOW two and two add up to FOUR, instead of FIVE, and sometimes SIX, that he made it.

That nipper was John Winston Lennon. A great deal of the credit for actually starting everything must go to him. He's a star performer now and a hugely-successful songwriter. But this is the direct result of years of striving for originality in whatever he did. He was always thinking up funny things about his form-mates and getting them down on paper. He still writes a lot of what he calls "rubbish" now, but to everyone else it's immensely funny and original.

Later in his schooling there was a paper called the "Daily Howl." Two years before John got his scholarship, he took over as reporter. Writing came easily to him and he thoroughly enjoyed his role of "newshound." Maths and science, on the other hand have always been large areas of mystery to him--black spots to be carefully avoided whenever possible.

After Dovedale, he went to the Quarrybank School, which is also in Liverpool. It's a grammar school--though still John maintains he has trouble spelling the word "grammar". Here again he was happy as long as he had some words to play with, or some drawing crayons and a pad of paper to doodle on.

This was the time that he began to take a deep interest in music. Which wasn't very surprising really. His mother, Mrs. Julia Lennon, played banjo . . . and played it well, though never professionally.

John's mother, now dead, taught her son to play some of the simpler banjo chords. He picked them up very quickly and started to add his own strident vocal touches while he plonked away happily.

Later on, he began to take a big interest in the current trends in music. Skiffle was in. Lonnie Donegan was spearheading the big new rage. Everybody--yes, virtually EVERYBODY--was getting in on the new kick. So John made a decision which started it all. Why not get some mates together and form a group. Primarily for their own enjoyment, but also to see if something bigger might develop.

So the Quarrymen came into being. John was a fifth-former at the time and lots of homework and studies clashed pretty hard with rehearsals and arrangements for the group. "I thought we had big problems in those days," he says now, "but it was all terrific fun at the same time."

He finds it hard to remember all the names of the others now. "I was on a battered old guitar, which hadn't cost much. A bloke named Rodney was on banjo, Pete Shotton was on washboard, I think Eric Griffiths was on another guitar and Len Gary was on box bass."

"There was a friend of mine called Ivan who lived at the back of my house and he went to the same school as Paul McCartney--The Liverpool Institute High School. It was through Ivan that I first met Paul. Seems that he knew Paul was always dickering around in music and thought that he would be a good lad to have in the group.

"So one day when we were playing at Woolton he brought him along. We can both remember it quite well. We've even got the date down. It was June 15th, 1955. The Quarrymen were playing on a raised platform and there was a good crowd because it was a warm sunny day."

Neither John nor Paul can remember any of that first conversation. But it was the starting point for many things. The first meeting of two prolific composers, who have not only provided their own hit material, but who have also helped so many others to the top of the charts. Two inventive young performers who now have the entertainment world at their feet. Anything they write will be performed. And we have only seen the very brief, first chapters of their careers.

The outcome was that Paul liked the look of the group and their sound. He was, as he puts it, propositioned! And he accepted.

Paul's father had run his own jazz band--Jim Mac's Jazz band--way back in the 1920's, long before Paul was born. Says Paul; "My mum is dead now, but my dad has always been marvellous about putting up with my practising."

"I suppose in many ways I started off by being all back-to-front. Being left-handed has made a big difference to my playing. It took me quite a while to realise that I'd have to reverse the order of the strings on my guitar to get the right-handed sequence of notes."

"When we first started playing together," said John, "I learned some chords from Paul and of course he taught me left-handed shapes, so I was playing a sort of upside down version of the correct thing if you can work that one out!"

"S'funny," said Paul, "but lots of people nowadays ask me what my parents would really like me to have been. I think the answer is 'clever'. That's all!"

George Harrison, strangely enough, went to the same school as John Lennon, but says George, "We didn't know each other, but we were definitely there together." In fact George didn't finally join the Quarrymen until 1958.

Paul and John, meanwhile, were busy trying to get work for the Quarrymen. Bookers would say: "Two pound ten shillings all right?" It WAS all right. As long as they had a date to play they were happy.

The group grew smaller by a couple of members. The remainder worked hard with lots of rehearsing. But problems began to arise. Certainly they were earning a few extra bob, but that wasn't so important because they were all living at home and none of them were hard-pushed financially. No, the big trouble was how to wake up bright and early in the mornings and get through all those lessons and homework after a night of playing or rehearsing.

This remember, was 1955 through to 1956. Things were happening in the music business. Disc sales were booming. All in all it looked a pretty good thing to be associated with.

Do you remember the discs which were hitting it big in, say January, 1956? Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" was then number one in the charts. Lonnie Donegan was a very big seller with "Rock Island Line." These two artists had spear-headed two separate pop music crazes; and both crazes ran side by side for some time in popular appeal until a certain Mr. Presley became crowned-king of rock. John, Paul, George and Ringo bought all the best discs and followed each trend avidly.

Ever alert to getting a more commercial approach, the Quarrymen included both rock and skiffle in their act. Mostly they bought the hit records and produced their own versions.

By the end of April, 1956, Bill Haley was rasping "See You Later, Alligator" while Lonnie Donegan was nasally intoning "Lost John."

Spurred on by their successes Britain was literally alive with rock and skiffle groups. Most of them perished within a few months. But it laid the foundation for all the excellent young instrumentalists we have today. They started off by learning a few chords, but the fact that they were able to perform in front of an audience gave them the desire to improve their playing.

The Quarrymen were one such group and the hundreds of dates they played in those years gave John and Paul the experience which is so obvious in their performances today.

George Harrison, meanwhile, was at school--the same school as Paul. At one time he'd been a very good all-round sportsman but gave it up once he got to high school, mainly because of his new interest in pop music.

George, especially in appearance--was always the complete individualist. He impressed his personality on his mates with his own special version of the school uniform, which included specially-tight Harrison trsouers and suede shoes, not to mention multi-coloured waistcoasts. None of the teachers were very fond of pupil George Harrison's 'scholastic attire!'

His headmaster felt that so much individuality was not good, but at the same time was unable to find a way of stopping it. Much as he would have liked to have lessened George's interest in clothes his main problem was to increase his interest in learning. As George says now "Really, John and I were the failures at school. I think Paul tried a bit harder than we did. But speaking for myself, my only real interest was in the recording scene at the time.

"I used to spend most of my time in school drawing guitars of all shapes and sizes. When I stopped that, I would start writing down all the words of the top songs of that time. Anything by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Crickets, Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochrane was all right by me. I liked to study the way the words were written and sung, then I'd go over them myself."

George joined a group called the Rebels in pre-Quarrymen times. His first meeting with Paul was on the bus going home from school many years before. And he first exchanged nods with John about a year later . . . in the fish and chip shop near George's school. It's worth noting here that the Liverpool College of Art and the Liverpool Institute High School are right next door to each other.

Says George: "The Rebels didn't do too badly. I remember we had this tea-chest bass with lots of little gnomes round it. One of my brothers had a five-shilling guitar, which had the back off it. It was just my brother, some mates and me in the group."

One day the Quarrymen were booked to play at the Woolston Hall and George and John got on the same bus. George had his guitar with him, and played some raunchy-style music. John liked what he heard but didn't say anything until they both arrived at the Hall. When they went in someone was idly picking out some modern jazz chords on a guitar. John asked George: "Can you play like that?" "You must be joking," was the reply.

But later George watched them play and decided that he would like to join as they seemed a good bunch of nuts.

Paul and George became firm friends right away. They enjoyed life in a very carefree way in those days. They remember going hitch-hiking together when once they went nearly 36 hours without being able to find anything to eat. "We'd often cook tins of spaghetti by the side of the road on a primus," said Paul.

What do they recall most from those early days together? Well, John and Paul remember they used to meet up at Paul's father's home, where dad would sit in on the piano, no doubt thinking back to the days when he fronted his own group.

Said John: "Paul had bought a trumpet and had this wild theory that he'd actually learned how to play the oldie 'When The Saints Go Marching In.' He just blew away as hard as he could drowning out everything we were trying to do. He thought he was doing a great job on the tune, but we didn't recognise any of it!

"We were also starting to get going on the vocal side and that upset Paul. He found that he couldn't play trumpet and sing at the same time. So, the time came when he had to make a big decision. Lucky for us he made the right one and bought a guitar, which he immediately started to play upside down, being left-handed, anyway, he got it sorted out in the end."

George Harrison almost never started to play the guitar. "I bought a tutor," he says, "but I couldn't make head nor tail of it. I used to pick out the right chords according to the book, but the results sounded terrible.

"Then, one night, I started mucking about with a bolt and screw on the guitar and the neck came away in my hands!! It had sort of unlocked. Well, it was no good leaving it hanging around in two pieces and I had no idea how to mend it so I put it away in a cupboard. Every so often I'd open the door and have another look at it. Anyway, eventually, my brother found it and fixed it for me. The trouble was that I didn't want to tell anyone that I didn't know what was wrong with it!"

Paul is well remembered by the others for his desire to drop into a wild Elvis Presley imitation at the drop of a hat. He had all the gyrating hip bits off to a fine art and one of his highlights was working through "We're Gonna Move," from "Love Me Tender," one of the early Presley movies.

John, Paul and George talked about nothing but music. They thought about little else, either. During the holidays they used to take guitars and amplifiers to the Liverpool Institute High School and play for their friends.

Les Chadwick, now of Gerry and The Pacemakers, Don Andrew and Colin Manley founder members of the San Remo Four, all went to the Liverpool Institute and joined in these holiday sessions.

The strange thing is that none of them was really thinking of turning professional. There just didn't seem to be any possibility of doing what they wanted to ALL the time.

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