JOHN - WITH THE BEATLES - Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney - Howard Sounes 

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney - Howard Sounes (2010)

PART ONE. WITH THE BEATLES

Chapter 2. JOHN

HAIL! HAIL! ROCK ’N’ ROLL

A dark period of mourning and adjustment followed the death of Mary McCartney, as widower Jim came to terms with the untimely loss of his wife and tried to instigate a domestic regime at Forthlin Road whereby he could be both father and mother to his boys. This was not easy. Indeed, Paul recalls hearing his father crying at night. It was thanks to the ‘relies’ rallying round, especially Aunts Ginny, Milly and Joan, that Jim was able to carry on at Forthlin Road, the women taking turns to help clean and cook for this bereaved, all-male household.

Crucially, as far as the history of pop is concerned, Paul reacted to the death of his mother by taking comfort in music. He returned the trumpet his father had given him for his recent birthday to Rushworth and Dreaper, a Liverpool music store, and exchanged it for an acoustic Zenith guitar, wanting to play an instrument that would also allow him to sing, and not liking the idea of developing a horn player’s callous on his lips. Learning guitar chords proved challenging because Paul was left-handed and he tried at first to play as a right-hander. It was only when he saw a picture of Slim Whitman playing guitar the other way around (Whitman having taught himself to play left-handed after losing part of a finger on his right hand) that Paul restrung his instrument accordingly and began to make progress. Schoolmate Ian James also played guitar, with greater proficiency, and gave Paul valuable lessons on his own Rex acoustic.4 As to what the boys played, there was suddenly a whole new genre of music opening up.

Until 1955, the music Paul had heard and enjoyed consisted largely of the jazz-age ballads and dance tunes Mum and Dad liked: primarily the song books of the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart; while trips to the movies had given Paul an appreciation of Fred Astaire, a fine singer as well as a great dancer who became a lifelong hero. Now bolder, more elemental rhythms filled his ears. The first real musical excitement for young people in post-war Britain was skiffle, incorporating elements of folk, jazz and blues. A large part of the genre’s appeal was that you didn’t need professional instruments to play it. Ordinary household objects could be used: a wooden tea chest was strung to make a crude bass, a tin washboard became a simple percussion instrument, helping define the rasping, clattering sound of the music. Despite being played on such absurd household items, skiffle could be very exciting, as Scots singer Lonnie Donegan proved in January 1956 when he scored a major hit with a skiffle cover of Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ (though the recording features a standard double bass). Almost overnight, thousands of British teenagers formed skiffle bands of their own, with Paul among those Liverpool skifflers who went to see Donegan perform at the local Empire theatre in November, just a few days after Mary McCartney died.

Close on the heels of skiffle came the greater revelation of rock ’n’ roll. The first rumble of this powerful new music reached the UK with the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle, which made Bill Haley a fleeting sensation. In the flesh Haley proved a disappointment, a mature, heavy-set fellow, not a natural role model for teens, unlike the handsome young messiah of rock who followed him. Elvis Presley broke in Britain in May 1956 with the release of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. The singer and the song electrified Paul at the age when boys become closely interested in their appearance. Elvis was his role model, as he was for boys all over the world, and Paul tried to make himself look like his hero. Paul and Ian James went to a Liverpool tailor, who took in their trousers to create rocker-style drainpipe legs; Paul grew his hair, sweeping it back like ‘El’, as they referred to the star; Paul began to neglect his school work, and spent his free time practising Elvis’s songs, as well as other rock ’n’ roll tunes that came fading in and out over the late-night airwaves from Radio Luxembourg. This far-away European station, together with glimpses of music idols on TV and in jukebox movies at the cinema, introduced Paul to the charismatic Americans who sat at Elvis’s feet in the firmament of rock: to the great black poet Chuck Berry, wild man Jerry Lee Lewis, the deceptively straight-looking Buddy Holly, crazy Little Richard and rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent, whose insistent ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ was the first record Paul bought.

Paul started to take his guitar into school. Former head boy Billy Morton, a jazz fan with no time for this new music, recalls being appalled by Paul playing Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty-Flight Rock’ in the playground at the Inny. ‘There must have been 150 boys around him, ten deep, whilst he was singing … There he was, star material even then.’ Paul imitated his heroes with preternatural skill. But he was more than just a copyist. Almost immediately, Paul started to write his own songs. ‘He said, “I’ve written a tune,”’ recalls Ian James. ‘It was something I’d never bothered to try, and it seemed quite a feat to me. I thought, He’s written a tune! So we went up to his bedroom and he played this tune, [and] sang it.’ Created from three elementary chords (C, F and G), ‘I Lost My Little Girl’ was of the skiffle variety, with simple words about a girl who had Paul’s head ‘in a whirl’. By dint of this little tune, Paul McCartney became a singer-songwriter. Now he needed a band.

THE QUARRY MEN

The Beatles grew out of a schoolboy band founded and led by John Lennon, an older local boy, studying for his O-levels at Quarry Bank High School, someone Paul was aware of but didn’t know personally. As he says: ‘John was the local Ted’ (meaning Lennon affected the look of the aggressive Teddy Boy youth cult). ‘You saw him rather than met him.’

John Winston Lennon, named after Britain’s wartime leader, was a full year and eight months older than Paul McCartney, born on 9 October 1940. Like Paul, John was Liverpool Irish by ancestry, with a touch of showbiz in the family. His paternal Irish grandfather Jack had sung with a minstrel show. More directly, and unlike Paul, John was the product of a dysfunctional home. Dad was a happy-go-lucky merchant seaman named Freddie Lennon, a man cut from the same cloth as Paul’s Uncle Will. Mum, Julia, was a flighty young woman who dated various men when Fred was at sea, or in prison, as he was during part of the Second World War. All in all, the couple made a poor job of raising their only child,5 whom Julia passed, at age five, into the more capable hands of her older, childless sister Mary, known as Mimi, and Mimi’s dairyman husband George Smith.

The relationship between John and his Aunt Mimi is reminiscent of that between David Copperfield and his guardian aunt Betsey Trot-wood, an apparently severe woman who proves kindness itself when she gives the unhappy Copperfield sanctuary in her cottage. The likewise starchy but golden-hearted Mimi brought John to live with her and Uncle George in their cosy Liverpool cottage, Mendips, on Menlove Avenue, just over the hill from Paul’s house on Forthlin Road. Much has been made of the social difference between Mendips and Paul’s working-class home, as if John’s was a much grander household. As both houses are now open to the public, courtesy of the National Trust, anyone can see for themselves that Mendips is a standard, three-bedroom semi-detached property, the ‘semi’ being a type of house built by the thousands in the 1920s and ’30s, cosy suburban hutches for those who could afford to take out a small mortgage but couldn’t stretch to a detached property. The essential difference between Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road was that the Smiths owned their home while Jim McCartney rented from the Liverpool Corporation, by dint of which the McCartneys were defined as working-class. It is also fair to say that Menlove Avenue was considered to be a much more desirable place to live.

John’s childhood was upset again when Uncle George died in 1955. Thereafter John and Aunt Mimi shared Mendips with a series of male lodgers whose rent allowed Mimi to make ends meet and who, in one case, shared her bed. One way or another, this was an eccentric start in life, and John grew to be an eccentric character. Like Paul, John was clever, with a quick wit and an intense stare that was later mistaken for a sign of wisdom - he seemed to stare into your soul - whereas in fact he was just short-sighted. He also had a talent for art and a liking for language. Like many solitary children who have suffered periods of loneliness, John was bookish, more so than Paul. John’s voracious reading accounts in part for his lyrics being generally more interesting than Paul’s. The literary influence of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll is strongly felt in John’s penchant for nonsense, for example, which first found expression in the Daily Howl, a delightful school magazine he wrote and drew for fun. The tone is typified by his famous weather forecast: ‘Tomorrow will be Muggy, followed by Tuggy, Weggy and Thurgy and Friggy’. This is also the humour of the Goon Show, which Paul and John both enjoyed. Above all else, the boys shared an interest in music. John was mad for rock ’n’ roll. Indeed many friends thought John more or less completely mad. In researching the story of Paul’s life it is remarkable that people who knew both Paul and John tend to talk about John most readily, often with laughter, for Lennon said and did endless amusing things that have stuck in their memory, whereas McCartney was always more sensible, even (whisper it) slightly dull by comparison.

Like Paul, John worshipped Elvis Presley. ‘Elvis Presley’s all very well, John,’ Aunt Mimi would lecture her nephew, ‘but I don’t want him for breakfast, dinner and tea.’ (Her other immortal words on this subject were: ‘The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.’) In emulation of Elvis, John played guitar enthusiastically, but badly, using banjo chords taught him by his mum, who was living round the corner in Blomfield Road, with her current boyfriend, and saw John regularly. Playing banjo chords meant using only four of the guitar’s six strings - which was slightly easier for a beginner. Having grasped the rudiments, John formed a skiffle group with his best mate at Quarry Bank High, Pete Shotton, who was assigned washboard. The band was named the Quarry Men, after their school. Another pupil, Eric Griffiths, played guitar, and Eric recruited a fourth Quarry Bank student, Rod Davis, who’d known John since they were in Sunday school together. Rod recalls: ‘He was known as that Lennon. Mothers would say, “Now stay away from that Lennon.”’ Eric found their drummer, Colin Hanton, who’d already left (a different) school to work as an upholsterer. Finally, Liverpool Institute boy Len Garry was assigned tea chest bass. Together, the lads performed covers of John’s favourite skiffle and rock ’n’ roll songs at parties and youth clubs, sometimes going weeks without playing, for one of John’s signal characteristics was laziness. Indeed, the Quarry Men may well have come to nought had they not agreed to perform at a humble summer fête.

Woolton Village is a short bike ride from John’s house, just east of Liverpool, its annual fête being organised by the vicar of St Peter’s Church, in the graveyard of which reside the remains of one Eleanor Rigby, who as her marker states died in 1939, aged 44. Starting at 2 o’clock on Saturday 6 July 1957, a procession of children, floats and bands made its way through Woolton to the church field, the procession led by the Band of the Cheshire Yeomanry and the outgoing Rose Queen, a local girl who sat in majesty on a flatbed truck. The Quarry Men followed on another, similar truck. Around 3 o’clock the new Rose Queen was crowned on stage in the church field, after which there was a parade of local children in fancy dress, and the Quarry Men played a few songs for the amusement of the kids as the adults mooched around the stalls. Looking at photographs taken that summer afternoon one is reminded that, although John’s band was named the Quarry Men, they were mere boys, gangly youths in plaid shirts, sleeves rolled up, their expressions betraying almost total inexperience as they haltingly sought to entertain an audience comprised mostly of even younger children. Typically, one little girl in a brownie uniform is captured on camera sitting on the edge of the stage looking up at John with the mildest of interest.

John, who had let his hair grow long at the front, then swept it back in a quiff, was standing at a stick microphone, strumming his guitar and singing the Dell-Vikings’ ‘Come Go With Me’. Unsure of the correct words, never having seen them in print, John was improvising lyrics to fit the tune, singing: ‘Come and go with me, down to the penitentiary …’ Paul McCartney thought this clever. Paul had been brought along to the fête by Ivan Vaughan, who knew John and thought his two musical friends should get together. The introduction was made in the church hall where the Quarry Men were due to play a second set. A plaque on the wall now commemorates the historic moment Lennon met McCartney. John recalled: ‘[Ivan] said, “I think you two will get along.” We talked after the show and I saw that he had talent. He was playing guitar backstage, doing “Twenty-Flight Rock”.’ In emulation of Little Richard, Paul also played ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Tutti-Frutti’. Not long after this meeting Pete Shotton stopped Paul in the street and asked if he’d like to join the Quarry Men. He was asking on behalf of John, of course. ‘He was the leader because he was the guy who sang the songs,’ explains Colin Hanton, who was surprised how quickly John made up his mind about this new boy. ‘[Paul] must have impressed him.’

EARLY SHOWS

That summer Rod Davis went to France on holiday and never rejoined the Quarry Men. John Lennon left Quarry Bank High, having failed his O-levels, and was lucky to get a place at Liverpool College of Art, which happened to be next door to Paul’s grammar school on Hope Street. In their summer holidays, Paul and Mike McCartney attended scout camp, where Paul accidentally broke his brother’s arm mucking about with a pulley, after which Jim McCartney took his sons to Butlin’s in Filey, Yorkshire, where Paul and Mike performed ‘Bye Bye Love’ on stage as a duo.

Girls started to feature in Paul’s life around this time. A pale, unsporty lad with a tendency to podginess, Paul was no teenage Adonis, but he had a pleasant, open face (with straight dark brown hair and hazel eyes) and a confidence that helped make him personable. Meeting Sir Paul today it is his winning confidence that strikes one most strongly. Initially he just buddied around with girls in a group, girls like Marjorie Wilson, whom he’d known since primary school. Likewise he knocked about with Forthlin Road neighbour Ann Ventre, despite getting into a fight with her brother Louis after Paul made a derogatory remark about the Pope (indicating that he didn’t see himself as a Catholic). Paul said one interesting thing to Ann. ‘I’ll be famous one day,’ he told her boldly.

‘Oh yes. Ha! Will you now?’ she replied, astounded by that confidence. Like many people who become very successful, Paul knew at a young age that he would do well. No doubt the fact he had come from such a happy and supportive home helped, being the apple of Mother’s and Father’s eyes. We must also credit him with natural musical talent, some genius even, of which he was himself already aware. If not misplaced, confidence is very attractive and by the time he was 15 Paul had his pick of girlfriends. He lost his virginity to a local girl he was babysitting with, the start of what became a full sexual life.

Being in a band was an excellent way to meet girls; it is one of the primary reasons teenage boys join bands. But early Quarry Men gigs brought the lads more commonly into the company of the men who operated and patronised the city’s social clubs: the Norris Green Conservative Club and the Stanley Abattoir Social for example. Small-time though these engagements were, Paul took every gig seriously. It was he who first acquired a beige stage jacket, John following suit, and it was Paul who got the Quarry Men wearing string ties. ‘I think Paul had more desire to be successful than John,’ comments drummer Colin Hanton. ‘Once Paul joined there was a movement to smarten us up.’ Paul was also quick to advise his band mates on their musicianship. Having taught himself the rudiments of drumming, he gave Colin pointers. ‘He could be a little bit pushy,’ remarks Colin, a sentiment many musicians have echoed.

Of an evening and at weekends Paul would cycle over to John’s house to work on material. It was a pleasant bike ride across Allerton Golf Course, up through the trees and past the greens, emerging onto Menlove Avenue, after which Paul had to cross the busy road and turn left to reach Mendips. ‘John, your little friend’s here,’ Aunt Mimi would announce dubiously, when Master McCartney appeared at her back door. The boys practised upstairs in John’s bedroom, decorated with a pin-up of Brigitte Bardot, whom they both lusted after. Sometimes they played downstairs in the lounge, a large, bright room with a cabinet of Royal Albert china. Uneasy about the boys being in with her best things, Mimi preferred them to practise in the front porch, which suited John and Paul, because the space was acoustically lively. Here, bathed in the sunlight that streamed in through the coloured glass, Lennon and McCartney taught each other to play the songs they heard on the radio, left-handed Paul forming a mirror image of his right-handed, older friend as they sat opposite each other, trying to prevent the necks of their instruments clashing, and singing in harmony. Both had good voices, John’s possessing more character and authority, which Paul made up for by being an excellent mimic, particularly adept at taking off Little Richard. Apart from covering the songs of their heroes, the boys were writing songs, the words and chord changes of which Paul recorded neatly in an exercise book. He was always organised that way.

During term time, Paul and John met daily in town, which was easy now with John studying next door at the art college. Here, Lennon fell in with a group of art students who styled themselves self-consciously the Dissenters, meeting over pints of beer in the pub round the corner, Ye Cracke. Like students the world over, the Dissenters talked earnestly of life, sex and art. Beatnik culture loomed large, the novels of Jack Kerouac and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti being very fashionable. The work of these American writers was of great interest to the Dissenters up to the point, significantly, where they decided they didn’t have to be in thrall to American culture. ‘We sat there in the Cracke and thought Liverpool is an exciting place,’ remembers Bill Harry, a founder member of this student group. ‘We can create things and write music about Liverpool, just as the Americans [do about their cities].’ Although the Quarry Men, and later the Beatles, would play rock ’n’ roll in emulation of their American heroes, importantly John and Paul would create authentic English pop songs, with lyrics that referred to English life, sung in unaffected English accents. The same is also true of George Harrison.

When Paul slipped next door to the art college to have lunch with John, his friend Georgie would often tag along. John treated Paul more or less as his equal, despite the age difference, but George Harrison was a further year back, and he seemed very young: a skinny, goofy little kid with a narrow face, snaggly teeth and eyebrows that almost met in the middle. Lennon regarded this boy with condescension. Paul did, too, but he was shrewd enough to see that George was becoming a good guitar player, telling George to show John how well he could play the riff from the song ‘Raunchy’. John was sufficiently impressed to invite Harrison to join the band. George’s relationship with Paul and John was thus established. Ever afterwards the two senior band members would regard George as merely their guitarist. ‘The thing about George is that nobody respected him for the great [talent] he was,’ says Tony Bramwell, a Liverpool friend who went on to work for the Beatles (John Lennon called Bramwell ‘Measles’ because he was everywhere they went). ‘That’s how John and Paul treated George and Ringo: George is [just] the lead guitarist, and Ringo’s [only] the drummer.’

Ringo is not yet in the group. But three of the fab four are together in John’s schoolboy band, Paul and George having squeezed out most of John’s original sidemen. When the resolutely unmusical Pete Shotton announced his decision to quit the group, John made sure of it by breaking Pete’s washboard over his head, though they stayed friends and, like Measles Bramwell, Shotton would work for the boys when they made it. Eric Griffiths was displaced by the arrival of George, while Len Garry dropped out through ill-health. Only the drummer, Colin Hanton, remained, with Paul’s school friend, John Duff Lowe, sitting in as occasional pianist. Of a Sunday, the boys would sometimes rehearse at 20 Forthlin Road while Jim McCartney sat reading his paper. ‘The piano was against the wall, and his father used to sit at the end of the piano facing out into the room, and if he thought we were getting too loud he’d sort of wave his hand. Because he was concerned the neighbours were gonna complain,’ says Duff Lowe, noting how patient and kindly Paul’s dad was. ‘At four o’clock we’d break and he’d go and make [us] a cup of tea.’

Despite Paul’s drive to make the Quarry Men as professional as possible, they were still rank amateurs. So much so that Duff Lowe got up from the piano and left halfway through one show in order to catch his bus home. It is also a wonder that their early experiences of the entertainment industry didn’t put them all off trying to make a living as musicians. On one unforgettable occasion, auditioning for a spot at a working men’s club in Anfield, the Quarry Men watched as the lad before them demonstrated an act that was nothing less than eating glass. The boy cut himself so badly in the process he had to stuff newspaper into his mouth to staunch the blood. Paul’s show business dreams were not quelled. Indeed, he seemed ever more ambitious. At another audition at the Locarno Ballroom, seeing a poster appealing for vocalists, Paul told John, ‘We could do that.’

‘No, we’re a band,’ replied John severely. It was clear to Colin Hanton that Paul would do anything to get ahead in what he had seemingly decided would be his career; or at least as much of a career as music had been for Dad before he settled down and married Mum. It is important to remember that in going into local show business in this way Paul was following in the footsteps of his father, Jim, who had entertained the people of Merseyside between the wars with his Masked Melody Makers. The fact Dad had been down this road already also accounts for Paul’s extra professionalism.

The next step was to make a record. In the spring of 1958, John, Paul, George, John Duff Lowe and Colin Hanton chipped in to record two songs with a local man named Percy Phillips, who had a recording studio in his Liverpool home. For seventeen shillings and sixpence (approximately £13 in today’s money, or $19 US) they could cut a 78 rpm shellac disc with a song on each side. The chosen songs were Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘In Spite of All the Danger’, credited to McCartney and Harrison, but essentially Paul’s song. ‘It was John’s band, but Paul was [already] playing a more controlling part in it,’ observes Duff Lowe. ‘It’s not a John Lennon record [sic] that we are gonna play, it’s a Paul McCartney record.’ This original song is a lugubrious country-style ballad, strongly reminiscent of ‘Trying to Get to You,’ from Elvis’s first LP, which was like the Bible to the boys. John and Paul sang the lyric, George took the guitar solo, the band striking the final chord as Mr Phillips waved his hands frantically to indicate they were almost out of time. ‘When we got the record, the agreement was that we would have it for a week each,’ Paul said. ‘John had it a week and passed it to me. I had it a week and passed it on to George, who had it a week. Then Colin had it a week and passed it to Duff Lowe - who kept it for twenty-three years.’ We shall return to this story later.

A COMMON GRIEF

Despite living with the redoubtable Aunt Mimi, John kept in close touch with his mother, who was more like a big sister to him than a mum. Julia Lennon attended Quarry Men shows, with the band sometimes rehearsing at her house in Blomfield Road, where the boys found her to be a good sport. Paul was fond of Julia, as he was of most motherly women, feeling the want of a mother himself. John also slept the night occasionally at Julia’s. He was at Mum’s on 15 July 1958, while Julia paid a visit to sister Mimi. As Julia left Mendips that summer evening, and crossed busy Menlove Avenue to the bus stop, she was knocked down and killed by a car. The effect on John was devastating. In later years he would remark that he felt like he lost his mother twice: when Julia gave him up when he was 5; and again when he was 17 and she was killed.

In the wake of this calamity, John, always something of a handful, became wilder and more obstreperous, while his friendship with Paul strengthened. The fact that Paul had lost his mother, too, meant both boys had something profound in common, a deep if largely unspoken mutual sadness. It was at this time that they began to write together more seriously, creating significant early songs such as ‘Love Me Do’. Paul would often ‘sag’ off school now to write with John at Forthlin Road when Dad was at work. But Paul was not dependent on John to make music. He wrote alone as well, composing the tune of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ on the family piano around this time, ‘thinking it could come in handy in a musical comedy or something’. Unlike John, whose musical horizon didn’t go beyond rock ’n’ roll, Paul had wider tastes and ambitions.

The Quarry Men played hardly any gigs during the remaining months of 1958, and performed only sporadically in the first half of the next year, including an audition for a bingo evening. The boys were to play two sets with a view to securing a regular engagement. The first set went well enough, even though the MC got the curtain stuck, and the management rewarded the lads with free beer. They were all soon drunk, with the result that the second set suffered. ‘It was just a disaster, ’ laments Colin Hanton. John started taking the piss out of the audience, as he had a tendency to do, and the Quarry Men weren’t asked back. John was often sarcastic and downright rude to people, picking on their weaknesses. He had a particularly nasty habit of mocking and mimicking the disabled. On the bus home that night, this same devilment got into Paul, who started impersonating the way deaf and dumb people speak. ‘I had two deaf and dumb friends in the factory [where I worked] and that just got me so mad I sort of rounded on him and told him in no uncertain terms to stop that and shut up,’ says Colin, who picked up his drums and left the bus, and thereby the band. Steady drummers were hard to come by - few boys could afford the equipment - and the loss of Colin was a bigger blow than they realised. John, Paul and George would struggle to find a solid replacement right up to the point when they signed with EMI as the Beatles.

WHY A SHOW SHOULD BE SHAPED LIKE A W

After George Harrison left school in the summer, without any qualifications, to become an apprentice electrician, the drummerless Quarry Men started playing the Casbah Coffee Club, a homemade youth club in the cellar of a house in Hayman’s Green, east of Liverpool city centre. This was the home of Mona ‘Mo’ Best, who had turned her basement into a hang-out for her teenage sons Pete and Rory and their mates. The Quarry Men played the Casbah on its opening night, in August 1959, and regular Saturday evenings into the autumn. It was at one of these rave-ups that Paul met his first serious girlfriend, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Rhone, a shy grammar school girl who fancied John initially, but went with Paul when she discovered John was going steady with fellow art student Cynthia Powell.

While playing in the band with Paul and George, John maintained a parallel circle of college friends, headed by art student Stuart Sutcliffe, who becomes a significant character in our story. Born in Edinburgh in 1940, Stu was the son of a Scottish merchant seaman and his teacher wife, who came to Liverpool during the war. John and Paul were both artistic, with a talent for cartooning. Paul was given a prize for his artwork at the Liverpool Institute speech day in December 1959. But Stuart Sutcliffe was really talented, a true artist whose figurative and abstract work made Paul’s drawings look like doodles. Around the time Paul won his school prize, Stuart had a painting selected for the prestigious John Moores Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. What’s more, the painting sold for £65 ($99), part of which John and Paul persuaded Stu to invest in a large, German-made Höfner bass guitar, which he bought on hire-purchase. So it was that Paul found himself in a band with John’s older, talented and rather good-looking college friend, someone John grew closer to as he and Stu moved into student digs together in Gambier Terrace, a short walk from the Inny. There was naturally some jealousy on Paul’s part.

Still, John and Paul remained friends, close enough to take a trip down south to visit Paul’s Uncle Mike and Aunt Bett, who, between theatrical engagements, were managing the Fox and Hounds at Caversham in Berkshire. Mike regaled the boys with stories of his adventures in show business and suggested they perform in his taproom. The locals could do with livening up. He billed John and Paul the Nerk Twins - meaning they were nobodies - asking his young cousin what song he planned to open with. ‘It’s got to be a bright opening,’ Mike told Paul. ‘What do you know?’

‘I know, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”,’ replied Paul, citing an old song. ‘Me dad used to play it on the piano.’

Uncle Mike sanctioned the choice, giving the lads some advice. ‘A good act is shaped like a W,’ he lectured, tracing the letter W in the air. It should start strong, at the top of the first stroke of the W, lift the set in the middle, and end high. ‘Too many acts are shaped like an M,’ Mike told the boys: they started quietly at the foot of the M, built to a climax in the middle, then faded at the end. With this advice fixed in their heads, the Nerk Twins did well at the Fox and Hounds, and Paul never forgot Uncle Mike’s alphabetical advice. All his shows from now on would be shaped like Ws.

THE MAN WHO GAVE THE BEATLES AWAY

One of the places Paul and his friends hung out in Liverpool was the Jacaranda coffee bar on Slater Street, managed by an ebullient Welsh-man named Allan Williams. Born in 1930, Williams was a former encyclopaedia salesmen, who sang tenor in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and had recently begun to dabble in concert promotion. His first big show was to feature the American stars Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Cochran died in a car crash before he could fulfil the engagement. The concert went ahead with Vincent and a cobbled-together support bill.

Williams’s partner in this enterprise was the London impresario Larry Parnes, known for his stable of good-looking boy singers, one of whom nicknamed his parsimonious manager ‘Parnes, Shillings and Pence’. Parnes’s modus operandi was to take unknown singers and reinvent them as teen idols with exciting stage names: Reg Smith became Marty Wilde, a fey Liverpudlian named Ron Wycherley was transformed into Billy Fury. When he came to Liverpool for the Gene Vincent show, Parnes discovered that hundreds of local groups had formed in the city in the wake of the skiffle boom. These were mostly four- or five-piece outfits with a lead singer, typically performing American blues, rock and country records they heard in advance of other people around the country because sailors working the trans-Atlantic shipping routes brought the records directly from the USA to Merseyside. While Parnes had plenty of groups in London to back his singers on tours of the southern counties, he wasn’t so well provided with backing groups in the North and Scotland. So he asked Allan Williams to line up a selection of local bands with a view to sending them out on the road with his boy singers. John Lennon had been asking if Williams could get the Quarry Men work, so Williams suggested the Quarry Men audition for Parnes.

At this juncture, John Lennon’s group didn’t have a fixed name, being in transition between the Quarry Men and the Beatles. Lennon’s friend Bill Harry recalls a discussion with John and Stuart about wanting a name similar to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. They worked through a list of insects before selecting beetles. During the first half of 1960 the band would be known variously as the Beetles, the Silver Beetles, Silver Beets, Silver Beatles (with an a) and the Beatals, before finally becoming the Beatles. The precise sequence of these names and how exactly they decided on their final name has become confused over the years, with many claims and counter-claims as to how it happened. An obscure British poet named Royston Ellis, who spent an evening with John and Stuart at Gambier Terrace in June 1960, says that he suggested the spelling as a double pun on beat music and the beat generation.

There have been several explanations advanced about how the Beatles got their name. I know, because it was my idea. The night when John told me the band wanted to call themselves ‘the Beetles’ I asked how he spelt it. He said, ‘B-e-e-t-l-e-s’… I said that since they played beat music and liked the beat way of life, and I was a beat poet and part of the big beat scene, [why didn’t they] call themselves Beatles spelt with an a?

Yet Bill Harry says nobody used terms like ‘big beat scene’ on Merseyside before his started his Mersey Beat fanzine in 1961, and he chose the magazine’s name because he saw himself as a journalist with a beat, like a policeman’s beat, covering the local music scene. ‘Once we’d started [publishing] Mersey Beat, after a while we started calling the [local bands] beat groups,’ says Harry. ‘That’s where the ‘beat group’ [tag] came about, after the name Mersey Beat, the paper.’

However, the phrase ‘big beat’ had already been used: The Big Beat was, for example, a 1958 comedy-musical featuring Fats Domino. Paul himself says that it was John Lennon who dreamed up the final band name, with an A. It was certainly John who explained it best by turning the whole subject into a piece of nonsense for the début issue of Mersey Beat, published in July 1961, writing:

Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision - a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an A’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.

Even this explanation gives rise to debate, because Royston Ellis further claims that the night he gave John and Stuart the name Beatles he heated up a chicken pie for their supper, and the pie caught fire in the oven. Thus Ellis was the man with the flaming pie. All that can be said for sure is that John’s band didn’t call themselves ‘the Beatles’ consistently until August 1960.

Three months prior to this, at the Larry Parnes audition, they were the Silver Beetles, a band without a drummer. To enable his young friends to audition for Parnes, Allan Williams hooked them up with a part-time drummer, 26-year-old bottle-factory worker Tommy Moore. As it happened, Moore was late for the Parnes audition, so the boys borrowed Johnny Hutchinson from another auditioning band, Cass and the Casanovas. In the end the Silver Beetles were not selected by Mr Parnes to back Billy Fury on a northern tour, as they had hoped, but they were offered a chance to back one of the impresario’s lesser acts, Liverpool shipwright John Askew, who, in light of the fact he sang romantic ballads, had been given the moniker Johnny Gentle. The Silver Beetles were to go with Johnny on a seven-date tour of provincial Scotland. It was not what they wanted, but it was something, and in preparation for this, their first foray into life as touring musicians, the boys chose stage names for themselves. Paul styled himself Paul Ramon. In mid-May 1960 they took the train from Liverpool Lime Street to the small town of Alloa, Clackmannanshire.

There was only a brief opportunity to rehearse before Johnny Gentle and the Silver Beetles went on stage for the first time in Alloa on Friday 20 May 1960. Johnny explained his act to the boys: he said he came on like Bobby Darin, in a white jacket, without a guitar, and stood at the mike singing covers such as ‘Mack the Knife’, before ending with a sing-along to Clarence Henry’s ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You But I Do’. Paul was the first to grasp what Johnny required from his backing band. ‘He just seemed to know what I was trying to get over. He was one step ahead of John in that sense.’ After Johnny’s set, which went over well enough, the star signed autographs for his girl fans. The Silver Beetles played on, so everybody could have a dance. Johnny noticed that, as he signed, the girls were looking over his shoulder at his backing band, as much if not more interested in them than him.

On tour, Johnny’s hotel bills were paid direct from London by Larry Parnes. The Silver Beetles were not so well looked after, and soon ran out of cash. Lennon called Parnes, demanding help. The promoter referred him to their ‘manager’ Allan Williams, who belatedly sent money, but not before the boys had been obliged to skip out of at least one hotel without paying their bill. Talking with Gentle, Lennon asked if Parnes would be interested in signing them permanently; he seemed more professional than Williams. Gentle asked Parnes, but he declined: ‘No, they’ll be fine for any gigs I get for you lads up North. But I don’t want to take on any more groups. We’ve got enough down here [in London].’

‘At the moment he’s a bit tied up,’ Johnny reported diplomatically.

‘Never mind,’ replied Lennon. ‘We’ll make it some other way.’ It was that confidence again. Not just with Paul. The whole band possessed remarkable self-assurance. They didn’t have a regular drummer ‘and they had a bass player that was fairly useless’, as Johnny observes of Stuart Sutcliffe, ‘[but] they had that belief that they were going to make it’.

Driving from Inverness to Fraserburgh on 23 May Johnny crashed their touring van into an oncoming car, causing drummer Tommy Moore to bash his face against the seat in front of him, breaking some teeth. The boys took the injured man to hospital, but Lennon soon had Moore out of bed, telling him: ‘You can’t lie here, we’ve got a gig to do!’ Tommy played the Fraserburgh show with his jaw bandaged but, not surprisingly, quit the Silver Beetles when they all got home to Liverpool a few days later. He went back to his job in the bottle factory. The boys went round to Tommy’s to plead with him to change his mind, but his girlfriend gave them short shrift. ‘You can go and piss off!’ she shouted out the window. ‘He’s not playing with you any more.’

Broke and drummerless, the boys asked Williams if he had any more work, and were rewarded with perhaps the lowliest gig in their history. Allan had a West Indian friend, nicknamed Lord Woodbine for his partiality to Woodbine cigarettes, who was managing a strip club on Upper Parliament Street. Lord Woodbine had a stripper coming in from Manchester named Janice who would only work to live music. The Silver Beetles were persuaded to accompany Janice. ‘She gave us a bit of Beethoven and the Spanish Fire Dance,’ Paul recalled. ‘… we said, “We can’t read music, sorry, but instead of the Spanish Fire Dance we can play the Harry Lime Cha-Cha, which we’ve arranged ourselves, and instead of Beethoven you can have “Moonglow” or “September Song” - take your pick … So that’s what she got.’

The boys got a little more exposure when they filled in at the Jacaranda for Williams’s house band, a Caribbean steel band, who had upped-sticks and left one night, deciding they could do better elsewhere. The band eventually called Williams to tell him they’d gone to Hamburg in Germany, which was pulsating with life, the local club owners crying out for live music. Allan and Lord Woodbine went to see for themselves. In the city’s red light district they met a club owner named Bruno Koschmider, a former First World War airman and circus clown with a wooden leg (some said his leg had been shot off in the war). A sinister impression was emphasised by the fact that Koschmider’s staff addressed him as Führer. Herr Koschmider told Williams that his Hamburg customers were mad for rock ’n’ roll music, but Germany lacked good, home-grown rock bands. He needed English bands. No agreement was reached at this meeting, but some time later Williams ran into Koschmider in London and this time Williams persuaded the German to take a young Liverpool act he nominally managed named Derry and the Seniors, featuring Howard ‘Howie’ Casey on saxophone. Derry and the Seniors did so well in Hamburg that Koschmider asked for an additional Liverpool act. This time Allan suggested the Silver Beetles. Howie Casey, who had seen the boys give their amateurish audition for Larry Parnes, advised Williams against sending a secondrater over in case they spoilt things. The matter would be moot, anyway, unless Allan could persuade the boys’ guardians to let them go.

The Silver Beetles were all under 21, and a trip to Germany would disrupt what plans their families had for their future. Paul had started out as a promising student at the Liverpool Institute, passing O-level Spanish a year early. But music soon displaced hard study, and he did so poorly in his main O-levels he was kept back a year. Paul had just taken his A-levels, with half a hope of going to teacher-training college. It was an ambition that Jim McCartney wanted to hold him to. ‘All the families were against them going,’ says Allan Williams, who drew upon his experience as an encyclopaedia salesman to talk the adults round. ‘I sort of described Hamburg as a holiday resort!’ Jim McCartney was a particularly hard sell, knowing Mary would have wanted her son to get on with his studies and become a teacher, or something else in professional life. Still, if Paul really meant to go, his father knew it would be a mistake to try and stop him.

Before they could go anywhere the band had to find a new drummer. Mo Best’s son Pete had taken up the drums, playing in a group named the Black Jacks. Approaching 19, Pete Best had been thumping the skins for the best part of two years, merely as a hobby. Like Paul, Pete was planning on going to teacher-training college. Paul and John watched Pete play at the Casbah, then Paul called the boy on the telephone. ‘How’d you like to come to Hamburg with the Beatles? ’ he asked. Pete said he’d love to.

On Tuesday 16 August 1960, the Beatles, as they were now finally calling themselves, assembled outside the Jacaranda in Slater Street where Williams was loading his Austin van for the road trip to Germany. Into this puny vehicle would be crammed all five Beatles (John, Paul, George, Stu and now Pete), their baggage and musical equipment, plus five additional passengers: Allan and Beryl Williams, Beryl’s brother Barry Chang, Lord Woodbine and an Austrian waiter friend of Bruno Koschmider’s to whom they were giving a lift. As they waited for the off, the boys cut out paper letters spelling THE BEATLES and stuck them to the side of the van. When all their belongings had been stowed, the overburdened vehicle pulled away from the kerb and trundled down the road. Among the small crowd waving them off was John’s sweetheart, Cynthia Powell, ‘tears running down my cheeks as the van disappeared around the corner’. Further back, not wanting to embarrass her son, was Millie Sutcliffe, who had said goodbye to Stuart at home, but felt compelled to see him off in person. As the women wept, the boys were beside themselves with the excitement of what was going to be a great adventure.