Tuesday 9 August 2022

The Three Amigos

Speke Secondary Modern
Central Avenue,
Speke, Liverpool L24 

2020 will go down in history, mainly for the wrong reasons which I won’t dwell upon here except to say that there won’t be many of us who weren’t affected to some degree, myself included.  

I’m sure like me, you were grateful for any opportunity to enjoy yourself and forget about what was happening in the world. For me it was having the chance to spend more time with the family, enjoy nice meals (when I could taste them again after contracting Covid), go for a walk in the park, take photographs, enjoy music and of course the opportunity to research and write about early Beatles’ history.

The release of McCartney III was a welcome surprise, not only for the music, which for the most part I really enjoyed, but for the TV and print interviews Paul gave to promote it. Of course some of the questions he was asked were in the usual “I believe the song Yesterday came to you in a dream, can you tell me about that?” vein but over the last few years I’ve noticed that, when given the opportunity Paul will talk freely about the early pre-Beatles days in Liverpool and seems to enjoy doing so, perhaps because he hasn’t been asked about that period every day for the last 50 years.

I’ve said it before and I'll probably keep saying it until he agrees, but I’d really love to interview him in detail about his life up to say, 1963, and get him to fill in the blanks as best as he can remember. That goes for Ringo too. 

When I read Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Tune In’ I was stunned by the observation that there are NO interviews or comments from John Lennon where he discusses Stuart Sutcliffe. This wasn't through any conscious decision by John not to speak about him, but because in all the interviews he gave not one person thought to ask. Of course, when somebody finally realised this omission, it was too late.

As interviews go BBC1’s “Idris Elba Meets Paul McCartney” was a mixed bag so far as the questions went but Paul looked like he was enjoying himself and once again when prompted seemed to delight in talking about his early days in Liverpool, his parents and his extended working-class family who became the yardstick against which everybody he met subsequently was measured.

'Cowboys At The School Dance' (c) Paul McCartney

The interview was interspersed with some nice home-movie footage and photographs including another never-before-seen Quarry Men era photo. That’s the FOURTH in recent years. Clearly the McCartney family have decided that the time is right for these early photos to have a wider audience.

Actually, this photograph has been seen before, but never in this quality. It was previously seen briefly in one of the pre-show films for one of Paul’s concert tours. A fan took the above screenshot which has been the one and only source of the picture until now. Comparing the two, it now looks like the fan shot was subject to a bit of touching up to try and repair the damage evident on John.    

The photo’s existence was acknowledged by Colin Hall and Colin Hanton in the latter’s autobiography, “Pre-Fab!” In fact, they devote a whole chapter to it.  
As I’ve commented before, Colin’s book is for me is both the best written and most accurate of the various Quarry Men memoirs (including the Hunter Davies book) adding lots of previously unknown details which for the most part fit within the previously established timelines without controversy.

However, his recollections of precisely when George Harrison joined the group throw a real Spaniard in the works and while there’s no cast-iron evidence that contradicts his version it does give historians something of a headache when trying to pinpoint the exact date of Eric Griffiths' departure and George’s debut.

The collective memory / officially agreed version of events seems to be that at Paul's insistence, George 'auditioned' for John on the top deck of the bus following a gig at the Wilson Hall in Garston. Nigel Walley was also present. The given date is reportedly 7 December 1957.

Being slightly older, drummer Colin Hanton had gone drinking with his mates after the gig and missed George's big moment. 

Colin says he first met George just before Christmas 1957 when John and Paul invited him to accompany them to the Broad Green area of Liverpool, ostensibly to check out the premises of a new venue where they could perform.

The new venue, situated in a large house called 'Balgownie' would be opened by Al Caldwell (later Rory Storm) in March 1958 as the Morgue Skiffle Club.  Colin's recollection therefore places the Quarry Men in Broad Green several months earlier than previously thought.

According to Colin, George was already at 'Balgownie' with his friend Arthur Kelly when they arrived. John and Paul introduced them to Colin, without mentioning that they were thinking of asking George to join the group.

A week or so later Colin learned that John and Paul wanted to bring in George as their lead guitarist, replacing Eric Griffiths. Eric had been a Quarry Man with John almost from day one and it was he who'd invited Colin to audition for the group. By 'audition' it's important to point out that Colin owned a drum kit, a rare commodity. He'd practically have to have been missing his arms and legs to be passed over.

George was clearly a better guitarist than any of them. Bringing George in would enable John and Paul to move the Quarry Men away from skiffle towards a more rock'n'roll oriented sound but with Griffiths in the band it meant that they would now have four guitarists.
Not being quite ruthless enough to sack Eric outright they gave him the option of moving to bass guitar. Of course, they knew there was no way Eric could afford to buy such an expensive instrument and when he refused it was left to the Quarry Men's manager Nigel Walley to break the news to Eric that his time was up. 

Griffiths appears to have wasted no time in signing up for the Merchant Navy but was his dismissal from the Quarry Men the catalyst for him running off to sea or just the straw that broke the camels' back? This is where it gets confusing.   
Eric had sat seven 'O' Levels in the summer of 1957 and managed to pass three. He decided to leave school and found a job as an apprentice engineer at Napiers. In the Hunter Davies book Griffiths says he lasted five months and then, fed up and frustrated, he went off to sea.

If we take the end of the summer term as early July, then the 'five months' at Napiers would take him to December 1957. He must have applied to the Navy at about the same time that Colin Hanton was being introduced to George Harrison at the 'Morgue'.  

Eric sat the entry tests and was accepted as an officer cadet. In January 1958 he reported for duty at Liverpool docks to join the MV Debrett. 

John 'Duff' Lowe is quoted in the book The Beatles Gear saying that John let George in about the same time as I joined. Skiffle was really falling apart. Len Garry had left too, so the tea-chest bass and the washboard were gone. All we were left with was Colin the drummer, John, Paul, George, and me. So it was definitely no longer a skiffle band, it was definitely country and rock then.  
Paul introduced me to George, and Paul and I had to make the decision, or I had to make the decision, whether to let George in. I listened to George play, and I said “play ‘Raunchy'” or whatever the old story is, and I let him in.

I said “OK, you come in”; that was the three of us then. Then the rest of the group was thrown out gradually. It just happened like that, instead of going for the individual thing, we went for the strongest format, and for equals.
John Lennon, Rolling Stone, 21 January 1971

Not that George immediately won John over:

George is ten years younger than me, or some shit like that. I couldn’t be bothered with him when he first came around. He used to follow me around like a bloody kid, hanging around all the time, I couldn’t be bothered. He was a kid who played guitar, and he was a friend of Paul’s which made it all easier. It took me years to come around to him, to start considering him as an equal or anything.  John Lennon, Rolling Stone, 21 January 1971

According to Colin Hanton, George made his debut playing with the group on stage at a school dance in Speke – just around the corner from his house in Upton Green. It was in early January 1958 – possibly Friday 3rd, sometime at the start of the new term.

The school was Speke Secondary Modern School on Central Avenue. Colin remembers it as a massive hall and a stage so big that as a group we were so spread out we needed binoculars to see each other.” ****

Mike McCartney's incredible photograph of George, John, Paul (and Dennis Littler) at the wedding reception for Paul's cousin Ian Harris, 147 Dinas Lane, Huyton, March 1958.

This precedes the previously accepted date of George’s Quarry Men debut, at the wedding of Paul’s cousin Ian Harris on 8 March. Comparing the two photos, it's clear they weren't taken many weeks apart, their hair and instruments are identical, and George has yet to have the growth spurt that would bring him up to John and Paul's height. The cowboy shirts were probably not appropriate for a formal wedding. 

Perhaps what is most interesting about the black and white photo is what you don't see: Colin Hanton.

In his book he reveals that there was an incident earlier in the evening that left him, pissed off, shall we say. 

Eric Griffiths had invited Colin to join the Quarry Men. Colin hadn't liked the way Eric had been dismissed for this new kid but had kept quiet, accepted the inevitable and tried to move on. However, he'd recently had his own musical abilities questioned, by Pete Shotton, Paul McCartney and even the Quarry Men's manager Nigel Walley. He was starting to feel insecure in his position.  Would he be the next one to go? 

Nigel Walley had bought the Quarry Men matching white cowboy shirts with black shoulders and white tassled fringes, from ‘Eric's’, a credit draper/ ‘a Teddy Boy shop’ near Rushworth & Dreaper’s on Commutation Row, not far from the Liverpool Empire.

Eric Levy was a member of Lee Park Golf Club where Walley had an apprenticeship. Nigel collected and distributed the shirts but never did pay all the money owed to Levy because with the exception of Colin, who had a full-time job, the rest of the group never paid up, which must have been the cause of great embarrassment for Nigel whenever he crossed paths with Mr. Levy at the golf club. 

For whatever reason, the Quarry Men had opted not to wear the shirts on stage to date, perhaps fearing they'd encounter Mr Levy before they settled the outstanding credit. 

However, Colin realised things had changed as soon as he arrived at the School hall. There had been no prior rehearsal with George, at least one that Colin had been party to, and therefore no advance discussion about the Speke booking. Nigel had simply informed him of the booking by telephone.

I turned up with my drums and almost immediately I walked in the room my mood darkened. There they were – John, Paul and George resplendent in identical white cowboy shirts. I was instantly miffed. I recognised these shirts because I had one in my wardrobe at home. What really bugged me was that they had made sure ‘new’ boy George had a shirt but had forgotten to say anything to me about mine. I was further miffed by the fact that this meant I now stood out from the others, which I didn’t like, not one bit. Visually I didn’t fit in. In an instant I felt like I was on the edge of the group, an afterthought, not part of things: a passenger. (CH)**

George had only been a member of the Quarry Men for five minutes and already looked more a part of things than Colin.  Presumably George was wearing the cowboy shirt intended for Eric. Note how he has his sleeves rolled up in the photo, a sign perhaps that the shirt was too big for him?

Colin recalls that George’s first gig was also the first time that the Quarry Men featured an ‘electric’ guitar on stage. 

Geoff Nugent, later a member of one of the best Mersey Beat era groups The Undertakers lived close to George at 29 Marton Green. Like George he had a Hofner President guitar, but Geoff's had an electric pick-up. He recalls George turning up at his house and telling him he was going to audition for the Quarry Men. He asked Geoff if he could borrow his amp. Geoff said no. Although the amp was little bigger than a transistor radio it had costs Geoff's mother about sixteen guineas so he daren't lend it to him. 

George was going up to the local girl's school, Speke Secondary Modern, on Central Avenue, just up the road from his house. I don't know the day or the date, but it was a dark night and that was where he told me he was going.

Geoff Nugent, The Fab One Hundred and Four, David Bedford  

While Geoff's memories loosely join up with Colin's it's interesting that Geoff remembers this booking as George's 'audition'. 

George had obviously followed Geoff's lead and acquired a pick-up for his guitar from somewhere.

I remember George had with him not only his hollow-bodied Hofner President guitar but since I’d first seen him at the Morgue, he’d attached a small pick-up to it. As I watched, somewhat agog, he was plugging a lead from his guitar into a small amp (that I later learned he’d borrowed from a friend). (CH)

According to Colin's book, George had persuaded a friend and fellow guitarist from Speke called Kenny Johnson to lend him his amp.  Like Geoff Nugent, Kenny had taken some persuading. The amp was brand new and George was just ‘a kid’ but Kenny relented and lent it to him and so, the first time George played with the Quarry Men he did so as an ‘electric’ guitarist.*** 

George explained to Colin that he needed the amplification so that his solos could be heard.  

In that very instant, skiffle was dead. The Quarry Men became an electrified rock ’n’ roll band. This was real innovation, and nobody had mentioned this to Colin either.

It wasn't one of their better nights. The stage was too big, Colin hadn't rehearsed with George before and as a result he sat at the back all night as a sulking 'non-cowboy'. 

After the gig, two girls approached the Quarry Men and asked if they could take a photograph. John, George and Paul started to pose when John noticed Colin hadn't joined them. He shouted him to come over. Colin pretended he hadn't heard him and carried on sulking while he dismantled his kit.

Instead the girls settled for a photograph of John, Paul, George and ... Arthur Kelly!  Arthur would accompany George everywhere in his early days as a Quarry Man, lending moral support. 

I could be mardy in those days when things upset me. I do regret it now because I missed out on being photographed with George on his Quarry Men debut. It didn’t come around again, the photo opportunity I mean. If only I had been a bit more mature, I’d now have a photograph of myself as a Quarry Man alongside John, Paul and George. I wish I’d behaved better but I didn’t. What happened, happened. (CH)

Remarkably Paul's cowboy shirt would re-emerge in 1969 and appear in the Beatles penultimate photo session. What a pity he didn't wear it for one day of filming during the Get Back sessions. I wonder whether George and John still had theirs ten years on? 

The Beatles, 9 April 1969 (c) Apple

A year later he'd be photographed wearing it again as a solo artist. No doubt he owns the shirt to this day.  


This was one of Nige’s final tasks for the Quarry Men. He was quickly losing interest after having to 'sack' Eric Griffiths and the embarrassment of the unpaid bill was probably the final straw. In any event, in the Spring of 1958 Walley contracted TB and was hospitalised in the sanatorium at Fazakerley. It’s notable that as soon as Nigel’s tenure as manager, ended the bookings for the Quarry Men dried up, the group members seemingly quite incapable of obtaining their own bookings.   

** CH = Colin Hanton. All Colin's quotes come from Pre:Fab! by Colin Hanton and Colin Hall. A revised edition is due to be published shortly. In addition a film has been made of the book and should hopefully reach us in late 2022- early 2023.  

*** Kenny played skiffle and country and later in 1958 formed Sonny Webb and the Country Four. In 1960 he left to form the Cascades and later fronted the Hillsiders and then Northwind.

**** Speke Secondary Modern is no longer there.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite type of article on the Beatles, pre-fab days, love it, thank you Mark!