The Beatles are the pop/rock group and phenomenon that has been a major part of my life and my psyche for over 30 years since the day in about 1988 when a boy in his early teens brought up on mainly commercial 1980s music suddenly encountered music that was largely new to his ears but which had been created 25 years previously. The music I’d known up to that point mainly featured the ‘self-conscious synths’ of the New Romantics and the 4-minute single created by gifted songwriters but with an overemphasis on production and electronic technology. Through the compilation ‘A Collection of Beatles Oldies… But Goldies’, which spanned the singles and most famous album tracks from 1963 to 1966, I marvelled first at the 2-minute immediacy of ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ from ’63, so direct, exciting and driven by guitar and voices that were young, raw and uninhibited with the power and energy to immediately excite the ears and lift the spirit. From there came the still catchy but more world-weary ‘Ticket To Ride’ from ’65 and then the next sensation of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ from ’66, 3 years on from ‘She Loves You’ but a quantum leap in terms of progress. Rather than go through the incredible Beatles story and try to make it my own, I’m instead going to just jump to one small but significant aspect that perhaps typifies both their appeal and what we are all striving for.
In around 2010, I watched some video clips of Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn, a veteran of many reference books and radio specials about the group, discussing a forthcoming trilogy of Beatles books called ‘All These Years’ that he was writing and which would eventually offer the complete story up to the split in unprecedented detail and drawing from truly obsessive full-time research. Even when I saw the length of the first one released in late 2013 (900 pages, with an ‘author’s cut’ edition of 1700 pages!), I didn’t really believe that there could be much information that a seasoned Beatles expert like me hadn’t already come across. Tackling the author’s cut this year, it turned out to be a 3-month odyssey of steady reading and one fantastic revelation after another, giving a much clearer sense of why the Beatles became so big. Bear in mind that this first book of the trilogy, entitled ‘Tune In’, only takes the story up to the end of 1962, where The Beatles are on the cusp of fame but without a hit single to their name, so the utter powerhouse that The Beatles have already become is at this point without the force of the now-legendary Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership and their incredible creations that have been with us 50 years and are probably going to last for as long as music is appreciated.
What comes across clearly from ‘Tune In’ is that The Beatles were stars from about 1961, 2 years before anyone outside their immediate part of the world (the north-west of England) and one city in Germany had ever heard of them. After an incredible Hamburg apprenticeship which encompassed 415 stage hours in 14 weeks from August-December 1960, followed by a mind-boggling 503 hours in 92 straight evenings from April-July 1961 and would include 3 more visits of varying lengths in 1962, the basic elements of their appeal were already there, and they had a following which was intensely loyal and already showing signs of becoming obsessional. They weren’t the only band to log this approximate number of hours on stage in Hamburg, but crucially they were the ones who seemed to take full advantage of the remarkable opportunity to grow that the relentless Reeperbahn slog, which began on the 20-year anniversary of the first Nazi bombs hitting Liverpool, afforded. To cut a very long story short, they learned incredible stagecraft, being able to take all the various elements of the music they loved and meld them into something hard rocking but also soulful, soaring harmonies of incredible beauty contrasting with a relentless beat and the raw brilliance of John Lennon’s driving rhythm guitar. They weren’t afraid to branch out and play all kinds of songs, including show tunes and music hall numbers. They provided cabaret and comedy, able to ad lib when there was electrical failure in the venues they were playing, but they also had ‘the toughness of hard lives in dangerous places’, as Lewisohn’s book puts it. Their shows seemed to have everything and encompass the history of music and the experience of life in every note, chord and beat.
2 glorious nights at ‘The Cavern’, the legendary venue on Mathew Street in the centre of Liverpool that in its original form was a converted fruit warehouse cellar used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War, exemplified The Beatles’ appeal. (For the record, the Liverpool tourism industry rather dishonestly omits to mention that the Cavern that exists now is a replica, built a few doors down from the original, which was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a car park!) The venue itself had a pungent aroma (odour) that none who played there have ever forgotten, a mixture of disinfectant, damp, fruit from the warehouses, toilets, perspiration, body odour, soup, hot dogs and cigarettes, an awful but incredibly evocative combination. The Beatles played theirs and the club’s first all-night session in summer 1961, with all the usual raw energy and breathless atmosphere heightened in this ‘6-act, 10-hour party’. One can only imagine what it was like, all the smells previously described intensified even further by even more heaving bodies than usual and the cooking, serving and consumption of large amounts of scouse (onions, carrots, potatoes and meat), once the favourite dish of Norwegian sailors and which gave Liverpudlians their nickname. There are overflowing toilets, pouring ceilings and walls, blown fuses, and lots of musical equipment being lugged through the crowds and into the crowded club.
In early April 1962, they managed to top this night with a private party aptly called ‘The Beatles For Their Fans’, a farewell before their 3rd ‘tour’ of Hamburg, which saw them become headliners at the newly-created Star-Club. The night was everything they hoped it was going to be, and the 650 or so who attended were treated to a set by the leather-clad Beatles who, after an interval and then an announcement by resident D.J. Bob Wooler, suddenly appeared in their new mohair suits, which garnered a mixed reaction initially from the fans who couldn’t quite let them evolve from what was familiar to them but which was eventually accepted as inevitable to ensure progress. Aside from their usual set, The Beatles and support act The Four Jays jammed the jazz standard ‘Mama Don’t Allow’ for a full 20 minutes, including George on trumpet (which he couldn’t play at all), everyone taking solos and improvisation to the fore. John and Paul later don Santa outfits (in the middle of spring!) and George wore a silk Noel Coward dressing-gown and Christmas-cracker hat. At the end of this incredible night, the Beatles delivered a special pre-planned parting message along the lines of ‘don’t forget us’, the group having a genuine fear despite their apparently untouchable status that in their absence the fickle audiences might move on to someone else, and step down from the stage into a version of what is later to be called ‘Beatlemania’.
Local music newspaper ‘Mersey Beat’ wrote this up as their ‘greatest-ever performance’, and personally it may well have been the highpoint of their collective life together, especially because they were about to be dealt a blow that even these tough Liverpool boys would find it hard to recover from, namely the death at 21 of their friend and former band member, the gifted painter Stuart Sutcliffe. On an April night in this tiny space in the world, unknown to anyone outside its immediate vicinity, there was all kinds of magic created, largely through human connection created by music and the sense of belonging to something, which I believe is that vital and sometimes elusive element that may be the key to a happy life. For all their success, perhaps this is one of the last times that it felt real, with the fans showing a remarkable appreciation for the group’s incredible talent without the wild-eyed and berserk hysteria that would eventually drive The Beatles away from live performance into becoming the studio band of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, a million miles away from sweaty Cavern nights.
This particular Cavern night in 1962 was most bittersweet for drummer Pete Best, whose tenure in the group was, probably unbeknownest to him, coming to an end. He was front and centre of one of the many highlights of the night, as the Beatles added a new gimmick to their stage act with the song ‘Peppermint Twist’, which reflected the still-popular but ultimately short-lived dance craze. Pete came out front from behind his drums to both sing and dance the song, with Paul taking over on drums and George playing Paul’s left-handed bass upside down. Best was joined in the twist by a fan and regular ‘Cavernite’ Kathy Johnson, and as the song went on and on without ever looking like it was going to stop, Pete and Kathy began a romantic partnership that has so far lasted more than 50 years. Was Pete, who was sacked as drummer just before stardom but who has maintained his health, sanity and privacy while eventually getting financially-rewarded through royalties from the ‘Beatles Anthology’ project, the ultimate loser or the ultimate winner? Without wishing to lapse into cliches, the music world and the public were the ultimate winners of the Beatles story. Without attempting my own version of a biography, I will probably include a few interesting Beatles vignettes as blog posts in the future.