Thursday, 16 March 2023

Behind That Locked Door: Inside the Harrison family home

25 Upton Green,
Liverpool L24

When Beatles' historian Steve Bradley invited me and a few friends over for breakfast at the former home of George Harrison on Sunday morning, the opportunity to photograph the house from top to bottom was too good to miss. To amuse ourselves we also tried to recreate every known photograph of George at the house.

I remembered to bring some props, Steve remembered the buns, but did anyone remember the matches and candles?

25 Upton Green, the Harrison's family home from January 1950 until August 1962. 

Sunday, 30 October 2022

Walking The Beatles' London - October 2022 (part three)

A recap: On Saturday 8 October 2022, I travelled down to ‘That London’ [1] with my fellow Beatles historian Steve Bradley [2] to attend Evolver 62, Mark Lewisohn’s one-man show at the Bloomsbury Theatre. 

The show didn’t start until 7.30pm so we agreed in advance that it would be too late to travel home afterwards and decided to make a weekend of it. Armed with The Beatles London [3], the indispensable guide to the 467 Beatles’ sites in the capital, Steve drew up an itinerary and we decided to try and visit as many as we could. 

Of course, we didn't get anywhere near the magic 467, but we managed to see quite a lot of them. 

And so, without further ado, here's part three:

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Walking The Beatles’ London - October 2022 (part two)

A recap: On Saturday 8 October 2022, I travelled down to ‘That London’ with my friend and fellow Beatles historian Steve Bradley [1] to attend Evolver 62, Mark Lewisohn’s one-man show at the Bloomsbury Theatre. 

The show didn’t start until 7.30pm so we agreed in advance that it would be too late to travel home afterwards and decided to make a weekend of it. Armed with The Beatles London [2], the indispensable guide to the 467 Beatles’ sites in the capital, Steve drew up an itinerary and we decided to try and visit as many as we could. 

Of course, we didn't get anywhere near the magic 467, but I discovered that if you are prepared to spend two days walking 23 miles [3] around the streets of London, powered primarily by Guinness and wine gums, you do manage to see quite a lot of them.

And so, in the order we visited them, here's day one, part two:

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Walking The Beatles' London - October 2022 (part one)

On Saturday 8 October 2022, I travelled down to ‘That London’ with my fellow Beatles historian Steve Bradley [1] to attend Evolver 62, Mark Lewisohn’s one-man show at the Bloomsbury Theatre.

The show didn’t start until 7.30pm so we agreed in advance that it would be too late to travel home afterwards and decided to make a weekend of it. Armed with The Beatles London [2], the indispensable guide to the 467 Beatles’ sites in the capital, Steve drew up an itinerary and we decided to try and visit as many as we could.

Of course, we didn't get anywhere near the magic 467, but I discovered that if you are prepared to spend two days walking 23 miles [3] around the streets of London, powered primarily by Guinness and wine gums, you do manage to see quite a lot of them.

Some of the sites we visited are extremely familiar to Beatles' fans the world over, but having only previously seen them in videos, films, books and record sleeves at times I was genuinely excited to see them in the context of their surroundings. I realised what it must be like for the thousands of visitors who visit Liverpool every year to see some of the Beatles' locations I sometimes take for granted, because they are part of the backdrop to my everyday life.

I’ve not walked around London in years, and at times I felt like I was seeing it properly for the first time. Every street we walked through seemed to have a blue plaque or something of cultural interest. It occurred to me that you could easily spend an entire weekend doing a musical-history-themed-walk through London, without including any Beatles’ sites. As you’ll see in this blog and the follow ups, we did manage to squeeze a few notable non-Beatles locations in.

We also had fun creating some Then and Now type comparison photographs, which I’ll post at the appropriate points.

And so, in the order we visited them, here's part one:

Sunday, 14 August 2022

Never Say Die - The story of Mona Best and the Casbah Club

"Come with me to the Casbah..."

Thanks to host Andrew Martin Adamson  for inviting myself and fellow Beatles blogger Steve Bradley to guest last week on an episode of his US podcast, Beatles60.

The Beatles60 Facebook group and podcast sticks to a strict timeline by looking back at Beatles' events and news, exactly sixty years ago.

We were invited to discuss the important role Mona Best and the Casbah Club played in the early Beatles' story. 

We talked about how the boys built up a steady following at the club and with Mona promoting their gigs around Liverpool, how they were able to replicate the great sound and following on Merseyside that they had already established in Hamburg.

Subjects covered:

  • A brief history of the Best family
  • How did Mona Best buy 8 Hayman's Green? The 1954 Epsom Derby
  • George Harrison's 'moonlighting phase': Lowlands and the Les Stewart Quartet
  • The birth of the Casbah Club
  • The re-birth of the Quarry Men
  • The Beatles return from Hamburg, December 1960 
  • Why it was left to Mona and Pete to organise the Beatles' booking
  • Early 1961 - Mona Best starts Casbah Promotions
  • Why didn't Mona become the Beatles' manager
  • The reasons behind the closure of the Casbah club 
  • The re-birth of the Casbah in the late 1980s
  • The Liverpool Beatles Museum, the Casbah club and Pete and Roag Best's activities today

By the end of the hour long discussion I hope we'd done enough to convince you, the listener, that Mona Best was a trailblazer, being the first female rock promoter, not only in Liverpool or the UK, but the world.

All this in the new episode available here:

Thanks for having us on the show Andy (and Wrence)!


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

Monday, 1 August 2022

Hope For The Future - LIPA Graduation Day(s) 2022

ACC Liverpool
Kings Dock
Liverpool Waterfront
L3 4FP

Exactly one month after his triumphant headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival Sir Paul McCartney returned to Liverpool to attend the annual graduation ceremony for the students of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). 

As the co-founder of LIPA in 1996, Paul has shown his continued commitment by attending every graduation ceremony since. 

I was lucky enough to attend the twenty-second LIPA graduation ceremony, held at the stunning art-deco Philharmonic Hall in 2019 and what I witnessed during the 2 hours plus ceremony left me with even more admiration for the former member of the Quarry Men.  

For the duration of the ceremony, Paul and LIPA’s co-founder Mark Featherstone-Witty sit centre stage flanked by ‘Companions’.  Unlike other British Universities, LIPA does not issue Honorary degrees. Instead, it recognises individuals in the world of art and entertainment by awarding them a ‘companionship’ for their outstanding achievement and practical contributions to students’ learning. These companions will often visit LIPA to give masterclasses in their particular field – the former Beatle has himself attended songwriting classes for the students – or to take part in question-and-answer sessions. During the service I attended several well-known faces were made a companion of LIPA including the actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry (Blackadder, The Hobbit, Wilde), the actor Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean, Blackadder) and musician, singer-songwriter, and former Deputy Chairman of the BPI, Mike Batt (The Wombles, The Planets, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’) as well as some perhaps slightly less well known outside of their recognised area of expertise but without whom the performance would not be possible – Lucy Carter (lighting designer), Steve Lewis (music publisher), Sue Gill (author), Tom Pye (set and costume designer), Kenrick Sandy (choreographer) and Andrew Scheps (sound engineer). 

Each new companion dons cap and gown for their induction ‘ceremony’ before they are presented on stage to Sir Paul and Mark Featherstone-Witty. They then give a speech. 

Mike Batt is made a companion of LIPA in 2019 (above). Rowan Atkinson amuses his fellow companions (below).  

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Celebrating the 65th anniversary of the day John met Paul

St. Peter's Church Hall,
Church Road,
Liverpool L25 

2022 is another year for Beatles related milestones (or millstones, as George Harrison once commented).

Following the recent media coverage of Paul McCartney's 80th birthday, and the almost universal praise heaped upon him following his astonishing, triumphant headlining performance at the Glastonbury Festival in June it would be quite easy to forget that 65 years ago this week he got the introduction that kick-started his career when his friend Ivan Vaughan took him to meet John Lennon and his group the Quarry Men at the Woolton Village Fete on 6 July 1957.

Last Wednesday, 6 July 2022, St. Peter's Church Hall opened its doors to the public, granting visitors free entry to where perhaps the most important introduction in the history of popular music took place. Over twelve hours a dedicated team of volunteers were on hand to welcome fans and invited them to take part in a singalong held between 10.30am and 12 noon. In the evening one of the volunteers, Chris Campbell held an Open Mic Night from 6.45pm to 10pm.

Yesterday, Saturday 9 July, the Church Hall was again open to the public between 10.30am and 3.30pm. As before there was free admission, though hopefully some of those visiting helped to swell the church coffers by purchasing some of the exclusive and tasteful souvenirs on offer which celebrate the connection between St. Peter's and the Quarry Men's 1957 appearance.    

From 6.30pm the Church Hall held a ticket holder and invited guests only event featuring the surviving Quarry Men in concert.  I was in attendance at what turned out to be a great evening of fun and laughter with friends old and new. 

More of which in a moment. Let's first rewind back to that beautiful summer's day in 1957. 

By now the story is well known.  The Quarry Men Skiffle Group comprising John Lennon (guitar, vocals), Pete Shotton (washboard), Len Garry (tea-chest bass), Colin Hanton (drums), Eric Griffiths (guitar) and Rod Davis (banjo) were there to provide musical entertainment for Woolton's teenagers alongside such attractions as the Band of the Cheshire Yeomanry, a display by the Liverpool Police dogs and the crowning of the Rose Queen (in 1957, Miss Sally Wright).

It was a big event in the village and attended in great numbers by the local 'Wooltonians' partly no doubt because 'there wasn't much else to do' according to my own Dad who was in the Sunday School held in St. Peter's Church Hall a few years behind Lennon, Shotton, Davis and Vaughan, as well as others who enter the story of Lennon's early years in Woolton - Barbara Baker, Nigel Walley, Bob Molyneux and David Ashton.

At 2pm the Quarry Men took part in a possession around the village, performing on the back of Doug Chadwick's flat-bed truck, Rod's dad James Davis taking two now well-known photographs as they passed his house on King's Drive. 

The Quarry Men on Kings Drive by James Davis (c) Rod Davis. Blended into 2017 by the author.

Once the procession arrived back at St. Peter's the Quarry Men set up on the permanent stage built on the field behind the church by David Ashton's father.  Today the field is part of the adjacent Bishop Martin Primary School. Here they gave their second performance of the day, reportedly watched by John's Aunt Mimi, his mother Julia and her daughters / John's half-sisters Julia and Jackie, his Aunt Harriet and her son David Birch and a local lad called Geoff Rhind, who took a remarkable photograph of the Quarry Men during the performance, John centre stage surrounded by local children.

Geoff Rhind's famous photo of the Quarry Men: Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton, Rod Davis, John Lennon, Pete Shotton, Len Garry

Also in the audience was Paul McCartney, brought to the fete by his Liverpool Institute friend Ivan Vaughan. Born on the same day in 1942, Paul would forever mention their shared birthday when talking about 'Ivy'. 

Ivan's house ('Vega') on Vale Road backed on to John's house ('Mendips') on Menlove Avenue and they had been friends since the age of about 5 years old. However, Ivan was academic and for this reason his mother refused to send him to Quarry Bank High School, rightly predicting that Lennon's disruptive influence would destroy any hope her son had of achieving sufficiently high examination grades to secure a place at university, something Pete Shotton was to find out the hard way. This despite the fact that Ivan was 18 months younger than John and would not have been in the same school year. Ivan was instead sent to the Liverpool Institute, where he met Paul McCartney. 

Outside of school Ivan remained great friends with John and their Woolton gang. Another of Ivan's Institute friends was Len Garry who lived close to the Penny Lane roundabout.  Recognising something in Len which he thought John would appreciate Ivan invited Len to cycle over to Woolton to meet the gang. Len would later remember being passed a copy of John's self-produced Daily Howl comic and appreciating the humour and drawings, and when Ivan did the introductions, Len couldn't help but point out that John's surname was very similar to the Raleigh Lenton bicycle he was riding (a present for passing his 11+ examination). This seemed to break the ice and Len became a permanent member of John's gang. This group of friends formed the nucleus of John's band, the Quarry Men, which he formed in mid-1956 after hearing Lonnie Donegan's recording of 'Rock Island Line'.  

Colin Hanton was slightly older than the rest of the Quarry Men and was already a working man. He knew Eric Griffiths from the bus, and after mentioning he had recently purchased a drum kit he was invited to join the group once John had given him the 'once over' (checked him out). Similarly, when Rod Davis, an infinitely more academic Quarry Bank pupil than Lennon or Shotton acquired a banjo, they immediately conscripted him into the Quarry Men.

Ivan prided himself on only introducing 'great guys' to John Lennon and recognising that his similarly rock 'n' roll obsessed school friend Paul McCartney had a not inconsiderable musical talent he invited him to attend the fete. Paul accepted the invitation, later admitting his prime reason was because he hoped to pick up a girl and cycled the mile or so from his home in Allerton to Ivan's house. From there they walked up one of the hilly roads, probably Gladstone or Castle Street, to Quarry Street where they took the Mill Stile path over the quarry to Church Road.    

By the time Paul and Ivan arrived the Quarry Men were in mid-performance.

One of Paul's often repeated memories of the day is how impressed he was by John's performance of the song 'Come Go with Me' by the Dell Vikings. Without knowing all the words John was improvising new ones using words he'd picked up from Country and Blues records: 'Come little darlin', come go with me, down down down to the penitentiary.' Of course, no teenager living in south Liverpool was really sure what a penitentiary was, asking a girl to follow you into hard labour isn't usually a surefire way to win her heart. 

Contrary to Paul's belief, John was not making these new lyrics up on the spot. As Rod Davis has often said, that was how they always sang it because nobody had the record, and they were reliant on writing down whatever lyrics they could discern from hearing it on the radio. It came up last night while I was chatting with him and he admitted to me that he had listened to the recording recently and even now the line John changed, 'Come go with me, don't let me pray beyond the sea' is still difficult to decipher.   

After their set the Quarry Men dispersed for a while. Colin Hanton remembers being with John in the scout hut where they were storing their instruments when Ivan brought Paul into the hut. He recalls the three of them making small talk while he was busy packing his drums away. This was earlier in the day before the famous introductions in St. Peter's Church Hall.

Colin went home for his tea, Rod likely did the same, and Nigel Walley, the Quarry Men's 'manager', had an asthma attack and left the fete.     

Before the Quarry Men performed for the third time that day, on the stage in the church hall, Ivan made his formal introductions.  John and Pete Shotton, Eric Griffiths, and Len Garry. 

Paul borrowed John or Eric's guitar, turned it upside down and played and sang a note perfect version of Eddie Cochran's 'Twenty Flight Rock'.  Then, brimming with self-confidence he went into his Little Richard impersonation.  

John wasn't going to let on, but he was astonished by the fifteen-year old's prowess (later admitting that he was 'shocked') and quickly realised Paul was better than everyone in his group. 

He really knew how to play the guitar. Until now, I was in charge of the group. And I thought, 'what happens if I take him in the band?' I realised that I would have to keep him in line if he started playing with us, but he played well, so it was worth a try. And he looked like Elvis. [2]

Lennon pondered whether it was better to have a guy in the band who played better than everyone else. Would this make the group stronger, or would it undermine his leadership of the group? He decided to make the group stronger, but he'd seek Pete's opinion first.

A few days later Paul was out cycling and bumped into Pete Shotton who told him John wanted him to join the group. Paul thought about it for a split second, and then said OK, but he was going to scout camp first.    

Fast-forward 65 years...

It was another beautiful summer's evening last night and following a swift pre-show pint in the Elephant public house with fellow Beatles' historian and friend Steve Bradley, we made our way up Mason Street past the 'bughouse' as John, Pete and Len nicknamed the Woolton Cinema, to the Church Hall.

On presentation of our tickets, we were delighted to receive a delightful and unexpected gift. Everyone attending the event was given a souvenir piece of stained glass from the original church hall windows, from the time of John and Paul's meeting, embossed with the number 65. My Dad would have loved that.

Tables had been set out in the hall which was already near capacity when we arrived.  Thankfully an advance party of our friends had saved us some seats on the front row.   

Looking around the hall I was happy to see so many familiar faces - the Quarry Men of course, representatives from Strawberry Field, John Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, Beatles' fan-club secretary Freda Kelly ('Good Ol' Freda!')[3], Charles Roberts and his wife Sandria, and National Trust Custodian of 'Mendips' Colin Hall,  Jean Catharell, Donna, Chris, Graham and the other volunteers from St. Peter's (whose hard day's work last night made the event the success it was), Bonni over from the States, Jackie Holmes, Phil from Liverpool Cycle Tours, Eddie Miles from the Manchester Beatles fan club and others I've inevitably and embarrassingly forgotten.  

The evening provided a tasty buffet and while I personally don't recall any mention of it in advance there was clearly an option to bring your own booze. Thankfully my friends had come prepared.

It wasn't long before the Quarry Men took to the 'stage', their instruments and equipment set up roughly on the spot where the historic meeting took place in 1957.

As with most of their appearances in recent years their line up included three of John Lennon's original Quarry Men; Rod Davis (guitar, vocals), Len Garry (vocals, tambourine) and Colin Hanton (drums) and a Beatle on bass. When the Beatles returned from Hamburg in December 1960 Stuart Sutcliffe stayed behind. With bookings to fulfil Chas Newby, a friend of Pete Best, took over on bass for four gigs. Chas, incidentally the Beatles' first left-handed bass player who also shares the same birthday as Paul and Ivan Vaughan has been a member of the Quarry Men since 2016. My friend Chrisse Usenius joined them as second guitarist, playing lead on several songs.

The Quarry Men, clockwise from top right: Len Garry, Chrisse Usenius, Rod Davis and Chas Newby

The Quarry Men Set list, St. Peter's Church Hall 9 July 2022:

Maggie May
Lost John
Rock Island Line
Freight Train
Puttin' On The Style
Mean Woman Blues
Come Go With Me
In Spite Of All The Danger
That'll Be The Day
Mess Of Blues
One After 909
In My Life
Twenty Flight Rock

Note: Set list also included the songs Memphis Tennessee, Blue Suede Shoes and Besame Mucho which were not performed [4]

Last night's set-list (this one was Rod's) signed by all the Quarry Men, Charlie Roberts who took the first photographs of the Quarry Men at Rosebery Street on 22 June 1957, and the National Trust's Colin Hall, co-author of Colin Hanton's memoir Pre-Fab.  

Let's not forget the part these gentlemen played in the formative years of our favourite group. They downplay their own part in the story, despite us constantly reminding them, but put it this way, without them John Lennon wouldn't have had a group. 

As always it was a joy to watch them. Like Mr McCartney they're now all over 80 years old and still full of fun and it's the in-between song banter and taking the mickey out of each other that makes them so endearing to the audience [5]. Here's an example: 

Rod Davis: There's a few dedications I've got to do here, and if I don't do them now I'll probably forget and get told off later. We'd like some applause please for Jenny and Pam, they are both members of St. Peter's and they were there on 6 July 1957, on the field behind so Jenny and Pam where are you? 
(applause) There's probably about seven or eight of you, apart from us guys who were there in 1957, if you were here can you stick your hands up.

We have a young lady whose birthday it is today, she was at the fete in 1957, her name is Alison, Alison will you stand up, come forward (applause). Here's another one, Erica, born on the 6 July 1957, not 'Born on the 4 July', and it's nothing to do with any of us guys either but more cake and flowers for Erica please.  Two more, Barry and Jacqueline, married at St. Peter's, 9 July 1966, more cake and flowers (applause) and somebody left me a note earlier on, could we play 'Puttin on the Style' for their Grandad, who is 111 today (gasps of astonishment). Hang on I've just looked at it again and no, he's ILL. 

It's customary during Quarry Men appearances for audience members to be invited up to join them on a song and accompany them on washboard or tea-chest bass - the choice is yours!  

A few years ago, Rod Davis invited me to play washboard with them at the Penny Lane Development Trust. It was only the one song ('Midnight Special') but it was such a thrill afterwards to be able to say I'd joined that elite club who could say they had performed alongside musicians who'd played with members of what would become the Beatles, and in Colin's case three members of the Beatles.  I jumped at the chance to do it again last night, as luck would have it on one of my favourites, Lonnie Donegan's 'Puttin' on the Style'. 

The author on washboard with the Quarry Men (photo: Jean Catharell)

Afterwards there was the usual rush forward to get things signed and request photographs but afterwards it was possible to sit and chat with the Quarry Men. 

Colin Hanton told me about his meeting with Paul McCartney backstage at the Liverpool Echo arena in 2018 after not seeing each other since 1959, the re-issue of his excellent book Pre:Fab, co-written with Colin Hall. Colin Hall told me about their hopes for the film that's been made based on Colin's book and when they expect it to be released (probably on Netflix). 

A couple of years back, Rod Davis sent me an email where he'd taken the trouble to share with me his memories of the shops, pubs, and public facilities in Woolton Village, particularly those with a John Lennon story attached. His recollection of detail is superb, and I suggested he should follow Colin and Len's lead by writing his own memoir. Last time we met he told me was thinking about it. Last night he told me he'd written about 80,000 words. I mentioned I'd enjoyed the recent Billy Bragg documentary about how the song 'Rock Island Line' kick started the UK Skiffle boom (the Quarry Men featured in the programme in segments filmed in St. Peter's church hall) and, presumably for the purposes of his memoir, Rod told me he'd actually been examining various recorded and transcribed versions of the song recently and come to the conclusion that Donegan had either made up some of his own lyrics ('tollgate') or had based his version on somebody else's none-sensical version of the lyrics, there being no such thing as a tollgate. Shades of John Lennon and his penitentiary improvisations. It's this attention to detail that I'm sure will make Rod's book a must-read.