Friday, December 31, 2010

End of a Very Big Year

December 31,1960

The Beatles play their last gig for this year at their old standby, the Casbah, in Pete Best's basement.  For these last three engagements, they press into service the bass player for Pete's old band the Blackjacks to replace the absent Stu Sutcliffe.  His name is Chas Newby, and he becomes one of the short list of musicians with a legitimate claim to being a member, however briefly, of the biggest pop group of the century.  (I recon, Paul wasn't yet ready to become the official full-time bassist for the band, but that is coming soon.)

Next up, 1961, and the Beatles continue to build their fan base.  Meanwhile, best wishes to you for 2011.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Litherland Town Hall - Remember

December 27, 1960

Cold and damp outside, there was something white hot going on inside Litherland Town Hall this evening.  The denizens of the Liverpool rock scene were being shaken awake by this home grown band that had obtained something special over in Hamburg and now was bringing the magic home.  Those who were there remember a hysteria that seemed to come over the crowd.  When the Beatles began to play instead of dancing to the music, they surged forward to be closer to the stage.  Screams of excitement were heard.  No one knew it yet, but it was the first manifestation of the movement that would later be called "Beatlemania".  It was just the shot in the arm the rather despondent group needed to be re-energized.

This was the first show at which the Beatles appeared that was organized by an important person on the developing Merseybeat scene, Bob Wooller.  Because they were booked so late, posters advertising the show were amended to say "Direct from Hamburg - The Beatles!" prompting some of the patrons to comment on the boys remarkably good command of the English language.

Me, Outside Litherland Town Hall in 1998

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Gig

December 24, 1960

Happily, the Wallasey Corporation must have gotten the violence associated with jive shows under control at the Grosvenor Ballroom.  The Beatles last played there back in July, just before the left on their German odyssey.  They, along with Derry and the Seniors, play a Christmas Eve gig at that venue.  The Seniors are the band that preceded the Beatles to Hamburg and were heard to complain to Allen Williams, "Why are you sending that bum band the Beatles over to spoil it for everyone?"  In their defense, they later became friends and supporters when they saw the progress the boys were making musically.

Happy Christmas, Beatle fans everywhere!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Come With Me to the Casbah

December 17, 1960

The year is rapidly approaching it's end and the Beatles are in a very different situation from when it began.  At the beginning of this year, they were really nothing more than a hobby.  They end it with a very wide repertoire, an exciting stage presence, and also very importantly, exposure to some new styles and ways of thinking.

So it is appropriate that today, the first place they should play on their return to their home country is the Casbah, the coffee club that Mona Best established in the basement of their Victorian Mansion in Hayman's Green.  She founded the club as much to satisfy her own desire to be among young people as to provide an outlet for the musical ambitions of her son, Pete.  (In fact, she would become pregnant by the Beatles friend and designated road manager Neil Aspinall, but that comes later.)

Incidently, today is the day that my Beatles tribute band (the Buntles) returns to the stage of our Alma Mater, AJs Music Cafe in Ferndale, Michigan, USA.  See the link to the right.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reunion

December 15, 1960

After a suitable (and short) period of inactivity, John Lennon again feels the tug of the creative urge.  Today is the day that he re-establishes contact with Paul McCartney, who doesn't even know that he is back in England.  In fact, it is interesting to speculate on what the world would be like today if John had fallen in with Tony Sheridan, a fellow Englishman, and just stayed on in Germany where he was developing a fan base, playing with whomever opportunity presented.  After all, that just what Tony did for the next 40 years.  I wonder if circumstances prevented it or if he just became homesick without the company and support of his "gang".

In any case, now here he is back at Aunt Mimi's, just across Calderstones Park from his partner Paul McCartney.  He must have trod the well worn path across to the McCartney's council house (public housing to us Americans) on Forthlin Road, probably with his guitar under his arm and amp on his back.  After catching up with each other, they begin to talk about the possibilities of playing some local gigs.

20 Forthlin Road in 1998

Friday, December 10, 2010

Taking Stock

Early December 1960

No doubt, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best are using this time to "take stock", trying to put the extraordinary experiences they have just shared into the context of their lives.

They left for Germany less than 5 months ago, a small time band, amusing themselves by playing community events and in friends basements.  At that time they were still heavily influenced by American country music, heard through the earpiece of the British do-it-yourself music called skiffle.

The center of their band has to be understood as the friendship between John and his best friend, artist Stu Sutcliffe.  The trip to Germany was for them a chance to break out of the limiting provincial environs of Liverpool, which has so dominated their lives to that point.  They know they are looking for something but, like all true searchers for the future, they are not quite sure what it is.  The others follow along under the influence of John's irresistible personality.

In Germany they were all to find the novelty and stimulation they sought, in no small measure in the company of the post-war kids of that country, also on a determined quest for the future. Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kircherr, Jurgen Volmer and their friends were sophisticated companions for working class lads from the north of England.

Of course, in the process they've come into greater contact with many complex ideas.  Sex and love, drinking and drugs, competition and cooperation, entrepreneurship and showmanship (spiced with a generous measure of exhibitionism).  They have had not altogether positive experiences with local law enforcement. At the same time their musical development has taken a giant leap forward.  Because of the long hours spent in front of an audience, their repertory has expanded exponentially.  They have met and befriended lots of like minded prototypical rock and rollers who became their influences and who they must have influenced in return.  For a musician, this is the essence of the development of new music.  No one has consciously moved toward any definite goal, nonetheless the momentum has been gathering in earnest.

The Beatles have not yet fully adopted the fashions of their new German friends.  They are just not yet ready to make that big a change in themselves.  But, they have seen those fashions.  And they do understand that they are an alternative. 

Stuart has fallen very much in love and is staying behind in Germany, for the moment, with Astrid.  John, also in love, has returned to live once more with his Aunt Mimi and to spend time with his girlfriend, Cynthia.  The others return to their comfortable normal lives and loving families.

It is as if a violent earthquake has suddenly subsided.  Silence prevails.  The dust settles slowly.  What will happen next?

Work of Stuart Sutcliffe

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Straggler

December 3, 1960

The game is up for the Beatles in Germany.  Because of an oversight (or by design)  proper work permits were never obtained for any of them.  Now that official notice has been taken of these foreigners, none of them will be able to stay on indefinetly.

So a couple of days after his band mates are deported, John Lennon leaves for home, via more affordable modes of travel, bus,  train, and ferry.  He carries his Rickenbacker guitar and his amplifier with him.  Years later he would remember how he was constantly on his guard, afraid they would be stolen during the journey.  But he does make it back to Liverpool and drags himself back to Aunt Mimi's semi-detatched house in a middle class part of Liverpool.  One can only imagine the reception he received from his rather straight-laced aunt.  Especially after he had bragged to her about the hundred pounds a week he would be pulling down in Hamburg.

A collective depression seems to settle over the boys now, there is no evidence that they even talked to each other for the next two weeks.  It must have been some comfort to John to have a steady girlfriend, the pretty and devoted Cynthia Powell,  to return to and one gets the impression that for John, Paul, George and Pete, this was a time to quietly reconnect with friends and family outside of their musical circle.  To recharge their spirits and re-experience life in a northern town after the high energy, exhaustion producing world of the Reeperbahn.  Stuart Sutcliffe, however, his relationship  with Astrid in full flower, remains in Germany, laying low at her house in Hamburg for a while, yet.


John's Aunt Mimi's house in Woolton (left half of this building)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Low Point

December 1, 1960

The two Beatles, Paul and Pete, unceremoniously deported from Germany, arrive in the early morning at the London airport.  They catch a airport shuttle to London and make their way to the Euston Railway Station for the long rail journey to Lime Street Station, Liverpool.  Worn out, down, pathetic, they stumble to that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in... home.

The Great Hall at Euston Station, London (still in use in 1960)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beatles, Wieder Nach Heim Gehen (Go Back Home!)

November, 30, 1960

Bruno Koschmider is furious.  The nerve of these guys.  To come into my place, where, out of the goodness of my heart, I allow them to stay, and start lighting fires.  It's arson, pure and simple.

Herr Koschmider immediately alerts the police to this dangerous foreign element in their midst.  It's not difficult for the police to find and arrest Paul McCartney and Pete Best.  There were not that many places they could be.  During the night, they are taken the St Pauli police station and booked on charges of arson of a private building,  They are held at the station until morning and then released.  They return to their lodgings above the Top Ten Club and try to get some sleep.  Later in the afternoon, they are again detained by the police and processed at Hamburg Police Headquarters, where they are informed that they will be deported back to England that very night.  On top of everything else, they are working in Germany without proper permits!  Apparently, the wheels of justice turn rapidly in 1960s Germany.

The perpetrators are not allowed to speak to legal council or to a representative of Her Majesties Government. And of course, their command of German is very limited.  This eventful day ends with Paul and Pete boarding a flight from Hamburg to London, unsure of exactly what had just happened to them. 

By necessity in all the commotion, Pete Best leaves his drum kit behind.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Little Fire with Big Consequences

November 29, 1960

Bruno Koschmider, fed up with the Beatles "disloyalty" to the Kaiserkeller, has notified them that their residency at that venue must come to an end at the end of November.  Today, Paul McCartney and Pete Best decide that it is time to retrieve the last of their belongings from Koschmider's Bambi Kino, where they were given places to sleep in connection with that gig.  When they arrive there, they find the place utterly dark.  To provide some feeble light (and at the same time to register their dissatisfaction with Herr Koschmider) they mischievously attach a condom to a wall and set it alight.  It flares up briefly, they grab what they came for, and abscond, one suspects, wearing wicked smiles of satisfaction.

The little war between them has just escalated.  Bruno Koschmider, master of the rough-and-tumble world of the Reeperbahn, will certainly not stand by meekly without launching a counter-offensive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Living Arrangements Improving

Late November 1960

Peter Eckhorn, the manager of the Top Ten Club, must think the Beatles have something.  He offers to allow them to "bunk down" in the attic above the club.  These are pretty spartan accommodations, but far better than the squalor they have become accustomed to behind the projection screen in the back of the Bambi Kino.  They begin to catch what sleep they can at the Top Ten, especially as they know their days at the Kaiserkeller are certainly numbered. 

The intimate relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr is quickly developing into an engagement to be married.  He is allowed to stay nights at Astrid's home in a well-to-do district of Hamburg with the approval of her mother.  Even she, a concert pianist herself, has recognized the soul of a budding artist in him.

In Beatles lore, Stuart has gotten the reputation of having been a poor musician, always playing with his back to the audience so the more musically inclined can't see all of the mistakes he is making.  I sometimes wonder how much of that reputation is really deserved.  There is at this time an internal conflict within the band chiefly between Paul McCartney and Stu.  It is easy to imagine that some of this animosity may arise from a competition for the attention of the uber-cool John Lennon.  Pete Best, the Beatles drummer at this period, says that he didn't notice any obvious shortcomings in the bass playing.  And it doesn't take a great leap to believe that a highly competitive and perfectionist young man like McCartney might have tried subconsciously to drive a wedge between the outwardly hardcore John and the sensitive and gentle Stu.  Doesn't it make sense that Paul would take more of an interest in the bass in order to "show the boy how it's done"?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

George Deported

November 21, 1960

The Beatles are enjoying their visits to see Tony Sheridan and others at the Top Ten Club rather too much in the opinion of Bruno Koschmider, who is the proprietor of the rival  Kaiserkeller.  Their contract with him clearly states that they won't perform anywhere other the the Kaiserkeller during the duration of that contract.  However, the lure of playing with such a talented group as the denizens of the Top Ten is too much for them and they are frequently seen on stage there, jamming with the locals.  Koschmider has already informed the Beatles that after the end of November their services will no longer be required by the K'keller.

Meanwhile, the local polizei have demonstrated a worthy zeal in making sure, by announcement from the Kaiserkeller stage, that at 10 pm the time has come for all persons of less than 18 years of age to leave the premises forthwith. (It's hard to imagine that they are allowed in there at all!)  George Harrison, being only 17, must have been carefully tuning his guitar at that time every evening and apparently missed the official announcement.  Or maybe it's that he doesn't sprechen der Deutsch so gut.

Is it that the constabulary can ignore the blatant violation for only so long?  Or has Mr. Koschmider turned vindictive informer now that he has little use for these impudent Beatles?  In any case, George is found out and immediately deported.  He uses every penny he has to make his way back to Liverpool alone.  The rest of the
Beatles decide to soldier on without him, but are only doing the absolute minimum required.  Their sights are set on the Top Ten.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Teacher

November 1960

Another performer from England appearing in Hamburg is named Tony Sheridan.  Tony is at least a couple of rungs above the Beatles on the ladder of musical success.  In fact, he had been a member of the English tour where early rock hero Eddie Cochran had been killed while traveling between venues back in April.  Bruno Koshmider had found his band, called "The Jets" on his first trip to England in search of talent to play at one or another of his Hamburg clubs.  He and the Jets had preceded the Beatles to the Kaiserkeller by a couple of months and were among the trailblazers of the England to Hamburg talent pipeline.

I love what Alan Clayson says about Tony in his book Hamburg - The Cradle of British Rock.  "Ricky Richards proffered, 'Only one reason why Tony came to Hamburg: running away from the police over a guitar...'  Although an admirable young man in many ways, Sheridan had a lackadaisical attitude toward the accumulation of debt.  The London booking agent, Tito Burns, had discovered this when, after lending the twenty year old - technically a minor in those days - the down payment for a guitar and assenting to act as guarantor, demands arrived for unpaid hire-purchase installments."

When Peter Eckhorn had opened the Top Ten Club, a palace compared to the Kaiserkeller, he decided to employ the best talent available and that, of course, was Tony Sheridan and the Jets.  Mr Eckhorn did have to "convince" Mr Koshmider to allow them out of a signed contract to do so, but somehow he managed it, probably more by crook than by hook.

Now. the Beatles, during their breaks will sometimes wander over to the Top Ten to see Tony and perhaps obtain a couple of new guitar licks into the bargain.  As Tony plays a mean lead guitar, George watches intently the magic his fingers make on the fretboard.  Tony, a true musician's musician, spends all of his energy on making music and is generous with his time, often playing in ad hoc jam sessions with anyone who wants to lay down some rock and roll.  The young George Harrison is frequently among them.  Tony's nickname among the musicians of the St Pauli district is "The Teacher".

There is a charming interview (45 minutes) with Tony from Irish Radio here.  What a sweet person he turned out to be!  And listen to some music samples here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Beatles @ Der Dom

November 1960

If you are a Beatles fan at all, you've seen the pictures.

Astrid Kirchherr, captivated by the Beatles rough sound and natural charisma, has been braving the dark atmosphere and coming to the Kaiserkeller for a week or so, and bringing other friends, as well.  A growing clique of college educated artistic types is forming around the Liverpool groups.   To differentiate them from the usual crowd of tough customers, they will be called the "exis".  That term is a reference to the ascendant  intellectual movement of that time called existentialism, often associated with beatniks.  (Astrid later revealed that she and her friends were not up on the latest philosophical trends, but somehow the label stuck.  Probably much like "rocket scientist" is applied to really smart people, today, even if they don't know the first thing about how to design and build an extra-terrestrial vehicle.)

Astrid, as a budding art photographer, summons up the courage to ask the boys if they will pose for some photographs.  They agree immediately.  They don't begin playing music until after dark and she needs available daylight, so the schedules are not a problem. 

She chooses as her location, the nearby fairgrounds, called the Hamburg Dom.  Astrid imagines that the thrill ride machinery and transportation vehicles will  provide an appropriate backdrop for her new working-class friends.  Since it is getting colder in northern Germany, the fairgrounds are mostly deserted.  Could anything be more inspired!

The pictures are the earliest of the Beatles that can be considered something more than the usual keepsake snapshots.  They show John with his newly acquired Rickenbacker 325 guitar and Paul holding John's cast-off Hofner Club 40 with the strings reversed for left-handedness.  George, the youngest and looking on the verge of exhaustion, is still using his cheap Futurama.  Stu holds his Hofner bass, obtained with the proceeds of a Liverpool art show award.  Pete Best brought along his snare drum and a pair of drumsticks.  For a Beatle fan these pictures conjure rich imaginings of what it must have been like to be there on the chilly November day in 1960, exactly 50 years ago.


     Pete, George, John, Paul and Stu         Copyright Astrid Kirchherr

An amazing art book from this time - Hamburg Days by Kirchherr and Voormann

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Astrid Kirchherr Finds a Soul Mate

October/November, 1960

When Klaus Voormann's girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, first hears his enthusiastic descriptions of what he has heard down in the St Pauli district, she is very surprised.  She considers Klaus a "cool customer" and this passionate attitude is most uncharacteristic of him.  After a day or two he convinces her to make the short trip down to the Kaiserkeller to hear this phenomenon for herself.

An apprentice photographer,  Astrid, like Klaus, has an artist's sensibility.  She describes a dark cellar decorated in a maritime theme, with disused fisherman's nets hanging from the ceiling and dirty tables.  This place represents a new and exciting experience for her.  Also like Klaus, she is immediately bowled over by the talent and charisma she sees blasting from the stage with the additional high octane jolt of sexual attraction..  The biggest shock comes when Stuart Sutcliffe turns around to face the audience and Astrid falls in love at first sight.  When she's sees the young man with delicate features and wearing black leather, brandishing a big bass guitar, she knows instinctively that this is everything that she has been looking for.

Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Toilet Humor and Genius

October/November 1960

The Beatles are playing long stints every night at the Kaiserkeller and to keep up the killing pace resort to German diet pills.  With the trade name of Prelludin and the street name of Prellies, they were an over-the-counter amphetamine.  The boys noticed that when they took them they could stay sharp for the long hours of the night and as a side benefit would feel more upbeat, lending more "mach shau" to their performances.

Another side effect might have been the increasingly erratic behavior exhibited especially by their ring leader, John Lennon.  Of course, at this late date it is very difficult to separate fact from legend, but there certainly is lots of legend to be found here.  There is a pretty well substantiated story that John once appeared on the Kaiserkeller stage in his underwear with a toilet seat hanging around his neck!  There are also stories of him urinating out of second story windows on unsuspecting passers-by below.

Many people remember that during these years, John would do anything for a laugh, even when the butt of his antics might view the perpetrator as having a particularly cruel streak. Almost everyone who knew him agrees, John Lennon was not an easy person to be around.  What is that mysterious relationship between the cruel young lout and the miraculous songwriter he was becoming?  No doubt it has much to do with the undeniable need to break the rules, whether of society or of art.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The First Fan

Late October 1960

Now entering the story is the person who has to be allowed the title "World's First Beatle Fan".  His name is Klaus Voormann.  Klaus started life in the city of Berlin and had moved to Hamburg to study commercial art at an art school there.  He is a talented artist and left school to pursue a career in art.  Klaus is of a milleu that was light years away from the working class Beatles, let alone the denizens of the Reeperbahn club scene.  He is what we would call continental in style and outlook.  He and his friends are deeply influenced by the art and culture whose center is in Paris.

Klaus is something of a loner and took up the habit of wandering around Hamburg to walk away his troubles.  One fateful day, after an argument with his on-and-off girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, he goes for a long walk to clear his head.  I'll let him take up the story from there.

"I found myself drifting toward the Reeperbahn in the notorious St Pauli district.  I slipped into a cinema but didn't stay long.  The film was awful.  At the corner of the Grosse Freiheit I stopped to buy some chips and hung around for a minute, watching the bouncers trying to attract customers to the bars and striptease clubs...  I heard vague strains of rock'n'roll coming from a  nearby cellar.  'Hey, did they do this too on the Reeperbahn?'  It sounded live and damned good...  On reaching the sunken steps, I checked myself.  'Klaus, hesitate now and it will never happen.'  With resolve, I descended the shadowy stairwell into the Kaiserkeller."

It wasn't the Beatles whose sound has lured Klaus down the steps, but Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  During the break, he ordered a beer and waited for the next band to come on.

"So, the band had made ready.  The guitars were tuned and the music box fell silent.  And then...'For goodness sake, I've got the hippy, hippy shake!'  I almost fell from my chair.  It was totally incredible!... Now the only question was if I should hang on until the band came back on stage, or run home to tell Astrid what had happened to me.  I decided on the second option.  After this incident I had totally forgotten our quarrel."

Klaus, of the millions who came after you, you recognized the magic first of all.

quotes from Hamburg Days by Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Young Man and a Guitar

October, 1960

In their few free hours, being obsessed with rock and roll music, the Beatles would visit the music stores of Hamburg, drawn to the high quality instruments to be found there, instruments that were not readily available in Liverpool.  On one of these excursions, John Lennon wandered into one of those shops (probably the Musikhaus Ratthof  in the Schanzenstrasse) and saw a Rickenbacker model 325.  He was immediately dazzled by its good looks, amazingly good action and short scale fingerboard.  The frets set close together allowed him to easily play chords that he had to stretch to play on his Hofner Club 40.  (Back in Liverpool, some would accuse him of having bought a "toy" guitar, but it was most certainly not one of those.)  John immediately bought it on a rent-to-own plan for the inflation-adjusted equivalent price of something like 1000 British pounds or $1500, a very considerable sum for him then.

Later, after it was beaten up from road use and retired from active service, John would call this guitar one of his most prized possessions.  Any guitarist can relate to how a favorite guitar can become almost a friend.  It will seem to bring music out of him  that even he doesn't know is in there, as if it is co-operating in the creative process.

Up to that point, the model 325, from Rickenbacker's perspective, had been a failed experiment.  The one that John had bought had been on tour to trade shows and was more than two years old at the time he bought it.  One imagines that the reason for the "failure" of the 325 is that it did sound so different from the usual electric guitar, such as we heard on Ventures records.  After all, the electric guitar sound was still in its infancy.

But in John's hands, the 325 would make music that would astound the world.  As with all musical innovation, it took the world a little time to develop the ears we needed to hear it.  Listen to those early Beatle records sometime and just focus on really hearing that rhythm guitar, so unlike anything that went before.  With this watershed event, a very important piece has fallen into place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Kaiserkeller

October 1960

The Beatles are getting comfortable at the much larger Kaiserkeller up the street from the matchbox-sized Indra.  The boards of the huge stage, however, had seen better days and are slowly rotting away.  The Beatles and their comrades Rory Storm and the Hurricanes get into a little contest amongst themselves to see who would be the first to actually break through the weakened boards.  It's easy to imagine that this contest is instigated by Rory Storm, himself.  He played no instrument on stage and more than made up for it by climbing, jumping and dancing wildly across the stage and beyond.  (Is this a very early punk influence?)  I doubt that it is very long before John Lennon, doing his wicked cripple imitation, takes up that challenge.  The poor old stage has no chance against such an onslaught.

Also helping (or is that not helping?) are the cases of beer sent up by appreciative audience members.  Word is spreading quickly about the wild new groups making waves on the Grosse Freiheit.

Meanwhile, a new club is opened actually on the busy Reeperbahn by a shady impressario named Peter Eckhorn.  It is called the Top Ten Club, and immediately bad blood is made between it and the Kaiserkeller when Eckhorn hires away Bruno Koshmider's head bouncer.  Between the tough club owners, internecine war has been declared.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rings and Records

October 15/16, 1960

Big news for Beatle fans yesterday and today.  On October 15, the Beatles, with their visiting manager, Allan Williams, went to the Akustik Recording Studio, near the Hamburg Train Station to make a record.  Alan decided to team up some members from the Rory Storm and the Hurricanes with some from the Beatles for this "project", including the drummer from the Hurricanes, name of Ringo Starr.  For the first time, all four Beatles played together on record.  They produced a version of the Gershwin song Summertime and had something like six copies made.  The only proof of it's existence is a picture of one of them, so clean out those attics, kiddies.  There are some 78 RPM records out there somewhere that would be worth many thousands of dollars each, even in this depressed market!

On October 16, the Beatles contract with Koschmider was extended through the end of the year.  (Alas, as we will soon discover, it was not to be.)  The band members were making 30 Deutchmarks (2 and a half British pounds) per day.  Oh well, it's a living.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Johnny

October 9, 1960

John Lennon and his band by now are becoming accustomed to playing at the Kaiserkeller, a very much nicer club than the Indra.  Like the Indra, it is situated on "Der Grosse Freiheit", but a little closer to the Reeperbahn, a street which is often crowded with people looking for an entertaining evening out.  The Beatles are sharing the stage each night with another legendary band from (where else?) Liverpool, Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, which features a great drummer named Richie Starkey, AKA Ringo Starr.

Today was John's 20th birthday.  There are no extant accounts that I can find of how he celebrated it, but most likely he was too energized/exhausted by the rock and roll lifestyle to do much of anything special.  So let's reflect on the goings on of 20 years previous (70 years ago today), the day John Lennon first saw the light.

On the day John was born, England was in the last throes of the famous WWII "Battle of Britain".  This is the name given to the attempt by Hitler's Germany to counter British resistance to Germany's territorial ambitions by bombing London in the summer of 1940.  When London didn't succumb, Hitler recognized that he was in for a longer fight and directed his bombers to widen their scope to other targets.  Among these was Liverpool, a major center of English shipping and industry.

Thus it happened that John's entry into the world was accompanied, within a day or two, by the scream of air-raid sirens.  He was born at the Oxford Street Maternity Hospital, a couple of miles from the home where he would spend much of his childhood, his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith's house.  Only a few weeks before, Winston Churchill had delivered his famous speech in praise of the Royal Air Force - "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."  Hence, the new boy was given the patriotic middle name of Winston.


Happy Birthday, John.  We miss you.

 Oxford Street Maternity Hospital










Indiana University photo

Sunday, October 3, 2010

End of the Indra

October 3, 1960

The Beatles definitely move up in class after today's "performance" at the Indra Club.  Bruno Koschmider decides to surrender to the complaints from upstairs and return the Indra to a more quiet strip club.  He does recognize a good thing when he hears it, so he moves the rapidly improving Beatles over to his much classier Kaiserkeller.  Stay tuned!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Endless Search for Material

September 1960

Instead of playing for perhaps a couple of hours a week in Liverpool and knowing exactly what kinds of songs were expected of them, the Beatles had been thrown into a place where they were expected to play for many hours every day.  To keep both themselves and the audience, such as it was, from becoming bored with their repetoire, they started on a quest for more material.  As incongruous as it seems for a rock band, one of the sources coming readily to hand was popular music from their parents generation.  They would have heard these songs since they were babies and simply had to work out a more upbeat arrangement to include them in their shows.  One reason for the Beatles great success later lay in their great facility for making wonderful arrangements of their songs as well as songs written by others.  Here in Hamburg was where they started learning that craft in earnest.

Here are links to a few of the songs, in earlier incarnations, that they incorporated into their Hamburg set list.  And two of their versions of old songs.  (Each will reward a listen in wildly different ways.)

Hoagy Charmichael - Darktown Strutter's Ball
Marlere Dietrich - Falling in Love Again (especially appropriate given the German connection, nicht wahr?)
Gracie Fields - Red Sails in the Sunset
Compare to the Beatles version
Gene Kelly - You Were Meant for Me
The Beatles - Sheik of Araby (written by Harry B. Smith, Francis Wheeler and Ted Snyder in 1921 in response to the sensational popularity of the movie The Shiek starring Rudolph Valentino)

Thanks to Another Girl for compiling this list of their Hamburg Songs.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

St Pauli District

September, 1960

Let's take a little walk around the world the Beatles found themselves in circa 1960.

St Pauli was (and is) a district within the city limits of Hamburg Germany.  The main street through it is called the Reeperbahn.  This was the street where respectable people would congregate in the evening for entertainment.  In Europe, it is called "Cafe Society", where people just gather to chat with friends, sip coffee (or something stronger) and just watch the passing parade.  That was the Reeperbahn.

The side streets in the St Pauli district were somewhat more sinister, where you would be more likely to encounter drunken sailors, pimps, prostitutes and small time crooks.  One of those side streets was called the "Grosse Freiheit" or Great Freedom (one block to the west is the "Kleine Freiheit" - I'll bet you can figure out the translation yourself).  About 300 yards north of the Reeperbahn, on the Grosse Freiheit stood the small club called the Indra, owned by Bruno Koschmider, where the Beatles were developing a following among the denizens of St Pauli.  Somewhere around this time, they discovered that the German audiences really loved it when the band would "mak schau" (put on a show).  They became more animated on stage, jumping around to the appreciative cheers of the small audiences.

Another couple of hundred yards north and around the corner on Paul-Roosen Strasse, stood the Bambi Kino, the tenth run movie house where the Beatles crashed between performances.

To operate a business in St Pauli, one had to be tough.  Alan Williams tells the story of a visit he paid to Herr Koschmider in the office in back of one of his clubs.  The meeting was interrupted by a bouncer, who informed the owner of some trouble brewing in the front of the house.  Herr Koschmider pulled open a desk drawer, grabbed a small billy-club and excused himself.  After some semblance of order had been restored, he returned, wiping the blood from the kosch and picked up the meeting where he left off.

Google Earth...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Outliers

September, 1960

By now the Beatles must have fallen into a regular routine.  They've been playing six nights a week, although they can't have been happy with having to keep the volume down on their sound equipment, such as it was, to pacify the immediate residents of the area.

It's not difficult to imagine that these long hours spent in Hamburg (and later in Liverpool) were very seminal for them.  Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker magazine with a special interest in personal development.  In his book "Outliers", he proposes that the way to really master any pursuit is to "practice" it for 10,000 hours.  (That is about five years of a full time job - 8 hours a day, five days a week.)  Is it just a curious coincidence that that is about the number of  hours that the Beatles would have played music together as a group up to their first trip to America and their date with destiny?  When I listen to their effortless vocal harmonies and the way their playing styles seem to blend so naturally, I'm convinced that there is something to that theory.  Of course, only a fool would deny that for true greatness to develop, the raw material and the hot-house environment has to be there as well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"B" Day for Germany

August 17,1960

They slept uncomfortably on the ferry on the way across the channel.  The van had been lifted via crane onto the deck of the boat which left on schedule for the Hook of Holland.  On arrival the van was unshipped and its passengers climbed back into its cramped interior for the drive across Holland and into Germany.  At Arnhem, they paused for a break from the road.  It seems that Allen Williams wanted to visit the WWII British military cemetery there. An amazingly prophetic photo shows most of them gathered in front of a memorial inscribed "Their name liveth for evermore". What!?

They arrived that evening in Hamburg and drove straight to the Kaiserkeller Club in the Reeperbahn district just as the night was coming alive.  Neon lights blazed forth to banish the dark.  Hookers and their pimps took to battle stations.  Allen Williams found the club manager and former circus clown named Bruno Koshmider there.  Another Liverpool group, Derry and the Seniors, were preparing to take the stage and gave the Beatles a rather cool reception, but not because they were afraid of the competition.  In fact, just the opposite, they were convinced the amateurish Beatles might ruin the scene for everybody.

The venue for the Beatles performances was a much seedier place, a recently converted strip club called the Indra Club. (Has anyone else noticed the similarity between the name of this club and the Indica Gallery where, six years later, John Lennon would meet an experimental artist named Yoko Ono?)  Their contract stipulated that they would play four and a half hour every weekday night and six hours on Saturday, not including periodic breaks.  As anybody who has ever performed in public knows, this is a grueling schedule, indeed.

They were allowed to bed down in a nearby movie theater called the Bambi Kino, a movie house whose better days were far behind it.  There were a couple of filthy rooms behind the movie screen that would serve as the musicians dormitory.  No showers or hot water.  The "artists" would have to make do with the public toilet for their personal hygiene needs. 

Well, the contract states that they start on August 17th, so start they must (at 150 pounds a week!)  Despite little sleep or food over the last 36 hours, they set up and played their first sets on the continent of Europe that night.  The audience consisted of a few disaffected strip club patrons, who hadn't been apprised of the change of featured entertainment, and an angry old woman, tenant of an upstairs apartment.  Oh, what would I give to have been there that fateful and momentous night!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Journey of 1000 Miles Begins

August 16, 1960

Stuart was the oldest at age 20.  John was 19.  Paul and Pete Best were 18.  And George, the youngest, was 17.  Henceforward, they dropped the word Silver from the band name and became the Beatles.

Passports and visas had been obtained, work permits conveniently forgotten. So all five boys with their equipment were loaded into an Austin van and set out on the long drive from Liverpool, through London, to Harwich and the terminal for the ferry to Holland.  Also on board were Allen Williams, his wife Beryl and her brother.  Allen's amanuensis and friend, Lord Woodbine was there, too.   In London, they picked up a friend to act as interpreter for the time being.  The van was about the size of a VW bus.  I count 10 people, four guitars and a full drum kit (plus personal luggage) so it must have been rather close in there.  (Pictures of the vehicle show a large bag tied to a car-top carrier.  No doubt the suspension was never the same afterwards.)

As to that equipment, Stu had his Hofner President bass (or was it a model 333?), and Pete his new drum kit. Lennon carried a Hofner Club 40 and McCartney a Rosetti Solid 7 guitar.  George Harrison's axe was a Futurama, which was an eastern European knock-off of an early Stratocaster, such as was played by Buddy Holly, leader of the American early rock band (and important Beatle influence) the Crickets. Their amplifiers were little plywood boxes that wouldn't even qualify as decent practice amps today.  But judging by recordings from around this time period, they did manage to generate a pretty exciting sound.

Can it really be that it was just nine years to the day before the first Woodstock Music Festival shook the world?

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Best Comes In

August 12,1960

The pace begins quickening now.

Bruno Koshmider, manager of the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg asked Allan Williams if he had any groups who might be able to come over to Germany to play there for a couple of months.  These were real professional jobs and they paid pretty well.  Still, it was no easy task to find a whole group of young men, most of whom were focusing on starting real careers, to up stakes and go across, leaving family and friends behind for months.  Luckily, the Beatles were just such a group.


There still remained the problem of a drummer.  The Beatles all thought Pete Best was a good guy, though kind of quiet, and he could carry a beat and did have that new drum kit...  So, the formality of a "audition" was arranged at the Blue Angel, one of Allen Williams Liverpool clubs.  Pete was in.





Paul, using all his native charm, talked his father into letting him go, even at the cost of missing some school.  George and Pete had mothers who were always ready to support their show biz aspirations.  John and Stu were somewhat older and at an age where they could be expected to make their own decisions (or should that be mistakes?) though John really had to work to get his aunt Mimi on board.  He did that by slightly exaggerating the opportunity (100 pounds a week!) and acting very excited about it.  

In less than a week they would be on their way to Germany.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Best Drumbeat

August 10, 1960

The Grosvenor gig being a thing of the past, the Beatles had even more time than usual on their hands. Of course, it goes without saying they would find something related to rock and roll to fill the extra time.  That quest took them back to a place that they hadn't seen since 1959, The Casbah Coffee Club.

The previous year John's original group, the Quarrymen (including both Paul and George) had played at the club in its earliest weeks.  In fact, they had helped to paint and otherwise prepare the basement rooms that would become the teenage hangout.  Later, a bit of bad blood between the Beatles and proprietor Mona Best resulted from the payment of a few shillings out of the band's fee to a band mate who was too ill to actually play.

The house band by August 1960 had become the Blackjacks, which featured on drums the shy, handsome son of the club owner.  Creator of the Atomic Beat, his name was Pete Best.  No doubt, the Beatles were also suitably impressed by his brand new professional drum kit.

The cover photo on the Best's book about the history of the Casbah shows a silhouette of John Lennon painted before the opening by his then girlfriend Cynthia Powell.  It feels as if part of John is weirdly frozen in time there, like the shadow of an unknown Japanese person emblazoned onto a wall at Hiroshima in August 1945.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The End of the Grosvenor

July 30,1960

Today is the last of the steady Saturday gigs at the Grosvenor Ballroom for the Beatles.  Disorderly conduct that broke out during and after the dances resulted in a number of complaints against the venue, which was, after all, operated by the local government for the benefit of the citizenry.  Henceforth, it was decided, the dances at the Grosvenor should be of the "strict tempo" variety (e.g. foxtrot, waltz).  Even that term "strict tempo" gives me the willies.  I can easily imagine Sister Katherine Imelda standing there, her rosewood cane at the ready.  Patrons so foolish as to ignore the rules, beware!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The German Connection

July 26, 1960

While the Beatles continued to play Saturday jive nights at Grosvenor Ballroom and Monday night sessions in the basement of the Jacaranda, Allan Williams worked toward his vision of a new entertainment empire.  (From such little acorns mighty oaks are born.)  Allan suffered two catastrophic setbacks in a short space of time at the end of July 1960.  First, he was "convinced" by the local constabulary that strip clubs were not going to be condoned in Liverpool and then his house band at the Jacaranda up and decided to move to greener pastures on the mainland.  In Hamburg Germany, to be precise.

Like Liverpool, Hamburg was a bustling commercial port city, had been since the days of the Hanseatic League.  And where there were sailors, who spent their lives on the move, there had always been opportunities for practitioners of the world's oldest profession.  In Hamburg, the Reeperbahn district was where those practitioners were allowed, if not encouraged, to set up shop.  Since even a young man can't spend all 24 hours in that pursuit, rowdy rock and roll clubs, sort of like the major leagues to Liverpool's minors, were sprouting all over the Reeperbahn.

Allen began hearing reports of the developing demand for entertainment from friends who had made the trip, including his Royal Carribean Steel Band friends, who were too naive to imagine that running out on the gig at the Jacaranda without advance notice might result in bad blood with the management.  A club manager named Bruno Koschmider had earlier made a trip to England and booked a Liverpool band called Derry and the Seniors, through Williams, to play at his club, the Kaiserkeller.  Encouraging accounts were reaching Allan's ears from that quarter, also.

The snowball had officially begun rolling downhill.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lord Woodbine and Janice

July, 1960

Two more colorful bit players enter the Beatles story during this time frame.  The actual dates are lost in the mists of time, as the history of most such "underground" activities are.  By their nature, they are designed to slip in under the radar of polite, law abiding and civilized society.  These events are interspersed with their last few gigs at the Institute at Neston and the Grosvenor Ballroom.

Lord Woodbine was the nom de guerre belonging to a shadowy east Indian man of Allan Williams acquaintance.  He got this name by virtue of his never being seen without his trademark Woodbine cigarette dangling from a lower lip.  (For a few good laughs, don't miss that preceding link!)

Lord Woodbine and Williams decided at this point in time to try out a new idea in entertainment that was sweeping Europe, the strip club.  Williams christened his (no blasphemy intended) the New Cabaret Artists Club.  A young well endowed lady, known today as Janice, was hired to perform.  Unfortunately for the frugal proprietors, Janice refused to work without live music.  Records were simply too cheap for her to ply her trade with.

The idea entered Williams head that the Beatles were always hanging around and pestering him for work.  Why not kill two birds with one stone and get them to play the musical accompaniment?  Negotiations with the musicians resulted in their agreeing to play a number of gigs behind the featured ecdysiast. At their first rehearsal, Janice handed them musical scores for appropriate classical pieces like Ritual Fire Dance.  The boys hadn't taken the time to learn to read music.  It wasn't really required to produce great rock music.  So, she had to be satisfied with some of the more sedate numbers from their repertoire, like Moonglow and Besame Mucho.

The seedy bar was a low point for them, but fortunately, the club didn't last very long and the Beatles were soon on their way to (somewhat) better things.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Gentle on Their Minds

July 2, 1960

The Beatles returned to the Grosvenor Ballroom but tonight turned out to be pretty special.  Johnny Gentle, who was from Litherland, north of Liverpool and just across the Mersey from that venue, surprised everyone by showing up unannounced and doing a couple of numbers with the band.  With his popularity at its zenith at this time, professional singer Gentle spent most of his days touring all over England.  John, Paul, George and Stu's stock must have shot up after this gig, having pulled in such a big "star" to do a guest appearance.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Steel Drum Band Goes Over

Early July, 1960

The Beatles were still playing, more for fun and practice than anything else, on Mondays in the basement of Allan Williams' Jacaranda Club.  On the other nights of the week, the entertainment was provided by a steel drum band.  (Readers of a certain vintage will remember the craze in the early '60 for Caribbean music, the biggest example of which is Harry Belafonte.)  Apparently, the fad had reached Germany, because around this time, the steel drum band decided to abscond from Liverpool for greener pastures in Hamburg, Germany, of all places.  The band members remained on good terms with Allan.  They called him to let him know there was plenty of opportunity over there for budding rock and roll talent and their enterprising managers.  No doubt, that started the gears turning in Allan's fertile imagination.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Institutionalized again

June 30, 1960

The Beatles played again at the Institute at Neston on the Wirral, no drummer, really marking time, waiting for the lightning to strike yet again.  Don't worry, Beatle fans, the storm clouds are gathering.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Stu Sutcliffe

Not much going on for the Beatles performance wise, so I thought I'd say a little about one of the group's lesser known founding members, Stu Sutcliffe.  When John Lennon, with a lot of luck, arrived in Liverpool Art College, he quickly made friends with one of her most promising students of the time, Stuart Sutcliffe.  Stu, very sophisticated for his years, seemed to understand that it is the artist's role to adopt an outsiders viewpoint in order to better see and reflect the reality of the world around him.  John, as was his pattern in all of his life, was drawn to the iconoclastic Stuart and they quickly became best friends.

Stuart was a slightly built, waif-like boy and the acerbic tough guy John became his protector.  Some of the letters that passed between the two of them provide a unique insight into their complex and close relationship.  When Stuart sold a painting after an art exhibition and was paid for a painting, John convinced him that he should purchase a Hofner bass guitar so he could share John's love of making music. There is some evidence that there was, at this time, some competition for John's attention between Paul and Stuart, creating a significant tension in the young Lennon's mind between the talented life stylist and equally gifted musician.

Stuart's contribution to the Beatles was not to be a musical one, he showed little talent for playing guitar.  None the less, his influence on John during this seminal period in the band's development was enormous, mostly from the perspective of the  approaches to art and style that the band adopted.

The official website of Stuart's Art is located here.  You can get a real appreciation of the truly experimental young artist he was by looking at his early, middle and later works.  June 23, 1940 was his birthday.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Keep on Jivin'

June 23, 1960

The gigs right now are pretty scarce.  It's easy to theorize that the only reason that the "Silver Beetles" found work at all was the immense demand created by the popularity of beat music in the North of England at this time and the "jive hives", still enjoyed today at places such as Beauwaters in Gravesend, England.  Today the prototype Beatles, made up of John, Paul, George and Stuart Sutcliffe, were back at the Institute at Neston.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Paul turns 18

The Beatles play the Grosvenor Ballroom on Paul's 18th birthday.  It's fortunate indeed that this venue existed, without it the band would have been in imminent danger of disappearing into the mists of time.  There is a wonderful article in the Beatles wiki about the place, which is still in operation, here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Drummerless again

June 16, 1960

The Beatles return to the the Institute in Neston, this time without any drummer at all.  One gets the distinct impression that John Lennon had resigned himself to playing without one, if that's the hand he was being dealt.  No doubt we are entering a very difficult period for the Beatles.  The novelty of actually being hired to play music wearing off, and the reality of trying to keep at it settling in on them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tommy's last bow

June 13, 1960

This being a Monday, the Beatles played the basement room of Allan Williams Jacaranda Club.  They were not paid cash money for these appearances, but were given beans on toast (yum).  I guess they thought of these sessions as practice time.

This was the last appearance with the Beatles of Tommy Moore.  He later gave as a reason for his leaving the abrasiveness of John Lennon. Tragically, Tommy died far too early in September 1981.  Here is a posting to a Beatleslinks.net forum made by a person who knew Tommy near the end of his life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tommy takes a vacation

June 11, 1960

The Beatles played the Grosvenor Ballroom again.  The Beatles had agreed to meet at the Jacaranda and go to the gig together.  When Tommy Moore didn't show up, they all piled into Allan Williams car and drove off to get him.  At Tommy's residence, his girlfriend informed them in no uncertain terms, that Tommy was finished with them.  He had gotten a job at the Garston Bottle Works.  They found Tommy perched on a fork lift.  In spite of cajoling and pleading, they couldn't convince Tommy to come down and play the gig.  (Still, after this he was persuaded to play one more gig with them.)

The Beatles were without a drummer, but they did have a drum kit.  At the gig, John Lennon, with his usual cheek, asked if anyone in the crowd would like to play drums that night.  That was a very bad idea.  Up stepped a large menacing looking Teddy Boy (with no obvious experience as a drummer) known to Beatles lore as "Ronnie".  He bashed away at the skins that night with such enthusiasm that the regular band members began to worry about what his reaction would be when the event was over and it was time to pack up and go home. Alan Williams came to the rescue and extricated the band from the clutches of the local Teds with no serious harm done.

Here is a pic that I found on macfan.net that shows just a glimpse of the elusive and enigmatic Tommy Moore behind his kit at the Larry Parnes audition earlier this month.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Back to Neston

June 09, 1960

The Beatles played tonight, a Thursday night, back at The Institute in Neston on the Wirral penninsula.  By this time, their out-of-place drummer Tommy Moore, must have been getting pretty tired of working all day and then doing a second shift at a jive show.  Also, his girl friend's nagging may have been becoming more insistent.  After all, he was not just a kid out for a lark, like the other Beatles, but a grown man, with responsibilities to meet.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Whitsun concert

June 6, 1960

Whitsun is an ancient holy day peculiar to European christian churches.  In a secular context, it marks the coming of warmer weather.  In 1960 the Beatles were hired by Less Dodd to play another date at the Grosvenor Ballroom, this one on a Monday, because the general population had a day off work  This date was also played by Gerry and the Pacemakers,.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Grosvenor Ballroom

June 4, 1960

Les Dodd was another rock show promoter in Liverpool.  The "big beat" shows at the Grosvenor Ballroom would become one of the staples in the Beatles orbit.  This first of their appearances happened on a Saturday night.  At this time, another of the Mersey sound groups to play these shows with the Beatles was Gerry and the Pacemakers, who later recorded Beatles reject "How Do You Do It" and had a hit with "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying".  Remember?  (Love those strings!)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Playing "Over the Water"

June 2, 1960

Having Allan Williams on their side was a big advantage for the early Beatles.  He had lots of connections to promoters who would sponsor "jive" shows that were cropping up all over the North of England.  Today, he found them a series of Thursday evening shows at The Institute in Neston, on the Wirral peninsula, just across the River Dee from North Wales.  Gang fights among teenage boys were as likely as not to break out at these shows.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The first Jacaranda appearance

May 30, 1960

As mentioned earlier, Allan Williams, who was sort-of managing the Beatles at this time, ran a coffee bar, very near the Liverpool Art College and the Liverpool Institute next door, called the Jacaranda.  It was a popular place for students to hang out.  Most days, live entertainment was provided by a Caribbean steel drum band, but Monday was their night off.  Careful note of the steel drum band should be taken, as they are to play an important part in the story.

On this day, the Beatles played the "Jac" for the first time.  (They had earlier been enlisted by Alan to paint the basement rooms for a bit of "walking around" money.)

Friday, May 28, 2010

The End of the Beginning

May 28, 1960

Saturday.  The last night of the Johnny Gentle Scotland tour.  Rescue Hall, Peterhead.

Rumor has it that Paul McCartney first played an electric guitar at this gig.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On to Nairn

May 27,1960

The Silver Beatles made the journey to Nairn and played the Regal Ballroom on a Friday night.  By now, money was getting really tight.  The tour was only partially expenses paid.  In fact the Beatles slipped out of Forres this morning without settling their hotel bill. A rock-and-roller does what a rock-and-roller has to do, I guess.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Another day in Scotland

May 26, 1960

Except for the first date in Alloa, all of the dates on this tour were along the southern shore of the Moray Firth, the large bay along the east coast of Scotland.  Today the Silver Beatles moved to Chapel St Keith and played St Thomas Hall.  (Must be a pretty holy place with all those saints littering up the landscape!)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Crash!

May 23, 1960

Singer Johnny Gentle was driving the Beatles van when he encountered another vehicle rather violently.  The only injury was to drummer Tommy Moore who's face got in the way of a flying guitar case.  He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was stitched up.  (He permanently lost a couple of teeth in the accident.)  Later that evening, John Lennon accompanied by the manager of today's venue convinced a groggy Tommy that he should check himself out of the hospital in the interest of show business.

The full band (including drummer) played the gig at Dalrymple Hall in Fraserburg, Aberdeenshire.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Excitment of Touring

May 21,1960

Today the group drove 150 miles north to Inverness, in the middle of Scotland.  They had no room, nor money for roadies and so had to shift their luggage and equipment for themselves.  I'm sure by now they were getting an idea of how glamorous and exciting life on the road was - NOT.  They played in the upstairs room of the Northern Meeting Ballroom, while the "real" band played "Old Tyme Dance" music in the main room downstairs.

Today was they day the blew off the gig they had agreed to play at Lathom Hall. Liverpool.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gently to Scotland

May 20, 1960

A very big day for the Silver Beatles as they play their first date on their first tour.  It took place in a town called Alloa in south Scotland.  They arrived early for the gig with front man Johnny Gentle so that they could rehearse for 30 minutes before the Friday evening show.


Google Earth Image of Alloa Town Hall










Odd fact:  Alloa is about 30 miles west of Kirkcaldy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A tour! A tour!

May 18, 1960


Although the (Silver) Beatles were rejected earlier as a backing band for Billy Fury, Larry Parnes thought he might have a place for them with one of his lesser "artists".  He contacted Allan Williams on this day with an offer for the Beatles to accompany a singer called Johnny Gentle.  (Paul McCartney recalls being vaguely disappointed by the rather mild stage name.)  The tour would visit seven venues "up north" in Scotland.  The tour was to commence two days later.  Of course, they accepted enthusiastically.

Getting into the spirit of the thing, the Beatles adopted stage names of their own, Paul Ramon, Carl Harrison (after rock hero Carl Perkins) and Stuart de Stael (after russian artist Nicholas de Stael).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Silver Beats

May 14th, 1960

Brian Kelly was a rock show promoter who used venues in North Liverpool to put on shows for the fans of the emerging local beat music scene.  At a show he sponsored at Lathom Hall, he allowed the "Silver Beats" to  audition for him during a break.  They must have done pretty well, as he booked them for a show the following weekend.  That turned out to be a show which the Silver Beatles decided to miss without notifying the promoter when a better opportunity presented itself.  What a lot of cheek!

Monday, May 10, 2010

An audition

May 10, 1960

A key person in the development of the Beatles was a guy named Alan Williams, their first quasi-manager.  He was a small time Liverpool impresario, of Welsh extraction, always on the lookout for ways to make a few bob from the entertainment business.  One of his ventures was the Jacaranda club near the Liverpool Art College which was a popular hangout for students.  That was originally how John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe came into his orbit.  His book called "The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away" is a very fanciful and engaging telling of the early Beatles history.  When the Beatles were (as usual) looking for a drummer, Alan Williams had hooked them up with a rather older musician named Tommy Moore, a guy with a wife and kids and a job at the Garston Bottle Works.  Ah well, any port in a storm!  The "Jac" became their practice space during the day with Williams promising work for them after they improved their musical skills.

After the Empire Theatre rock show of March 1960, starring Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, Williams had contacted Larry Parnes to offer his talent for any of Parnes' extravaganzas.  Larry Parnes happened to be in need of a backing group for his star attraction, Billy Fury.  An audition session was hastily arranged to take place on this day at a venue that Williams was just opening a lease on.  A place later to be called the "Blue Angel".  The Beatles played, but did not "pass the audition".

Monday, May 3, 2010

Liverpool Stadium - Bixteth Street show

May 3, 1960

The Beatles (spelled Beatals) didn't play at it but they did sit in the audience of a show produced by Larry Parnes that included many rock and roll acts from both sides of the Atlantic on this day.  After the show, Parnes told Alan Williams (of Jacaranda fame) that he needed some Liverpool talent to back up his local hearthrobs, like Billy Fury and Tommy Steele.  Parnes agreed to return in a week to audition some musicians.

(P.S.  This post was composed and posted from Florence, Italy.  I'm here on vacation.  The Brunelleschi Dome is magnificient!)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Nerk Twins

April 23, 1960

During Easter break, John and Paul decided on a change of scene and hitchhiked to Reading, England.  Paul's cousin Betty and her husband, Mike, operated a neighborhood pub there called "The Fox and Hounds".  Mostly they were there to hang out and pull pints at the bar, but Mike, knowing of their interest in music, suggested that they might like to do a set for the patrons.  They agreed on the moniker "The Nerk Twins" and this weekend was the only time they used it.  One of the song requests they did, no doubt with tongue in cheek, was Les Paul and Mary Ford's "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise".  (I can just hear John doing that, even today, can't you?)

Paul McCartney recently said it was the smallest venue they ever played and they were pretty much ignored, but they did hand-draw some posters announcing the appearance.  Can you image what one of those would be worth if it turned up in somebody's attic today?


Recent "Fox and Hounds" photo from the Online Daily Mail

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Day the Music Died

April 17th, 1960

I'm always amazed when reading the Beatles story, about how it seems that every event seems to have happened when it did almost as if preordained.  One of those events, tragic and meaningful only in retrospect, happened just 50 years ago. One of the rock prototypes for the early Beatles, an American, died in a car crash while on tour in England, just a couple of hundred miles south of Liverpool.  It happened just one month after he was a key figure in bringing American rock and roll to the city of Liverpool.  Eddie Cochrane was his name.    His big song was "20 Flight Rock".  If you want to see what a massive influence he had on the early Beatles, just check out this youtube.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Couple of Friends

By some quirk of the English education system,  John Lennon, a rather unpromising student but brilliant iconoclast, had gotten a place a the Liverpool College of Art.  He brought his music, which by this time was mostly American early rock and roll, with him to school and would organize jam sessions in the common room of the college.  It was at the college that he met and befriended a very promising art student named Stuart Sutcliffe.

The Beatles story is full of lots of  "cameo" players who arrived, played their parts and then exited the stage, after having done their bit in advancing the story. There is no one, however, as important to the story as Stuart Sutcliffe.  John being the leader of all his friends activities, eventually prevailed on Stu to obtain a bass guitar so as to participate in the musical aspect of his life.

Another friend was called Pete Best.  Pete's mother, Mona, was a very friendly woman of East Indian heritage. In the basement of her large Victorian home, she decided to establish a "teen club" to bring in a few bob and to give her son, Pete, a place to hang out with his friends.  The club was called "The Casbah" and it became a place for the Beatles to hang out and play their music.  Pete, though not yet a member of the Beatles, did play the drums.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

George's Childhood

George Harrison was the youngest of four children of Harry and Louise Harrison.  He was born into a "two up - two down" home at number 12, Arnold Grove. This was a four room domicile with a parlor and kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.  There was no inside plumbing, so there was a privy in the back garden and a zinc tub for filling with hot water from the stove for bathing.


12 Arnold Grove

Harry made a passable living as a Liverpool bus driver, but the family got by on very modest means.  However, George showed himself to be an intelligent young man and was accepted into the Liverpool Institute, where only the most talented kids were allowed to attend. George, by this time, was obsessed by guitars and it didn't take a lot of pleading to convince Louise that her son should have one of his own.

Paul McCartney happened to be another of those kids enrolled at the Institute, and it so happened that George and Paul would ride the same public bus to school.  George was already known to Paul as a talented guitarist when he hooked up with John, so he invited him along to an audition on the upper level of a bus.  George played an expert rendition of the popular guitar song called "Raunchy" by Bill Justis and he was in.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Liverpool scene March 1960

This is my first "50th Anniversary" post.

It was a very seminal event that took place the week of March 14-20 1960 at the Empire Theatre in downtown Liverpool England.  Larry Parnes, an English pop impressario, organized a show featuring top American rock-and-roll singers Eddie Cochran and Gene VincentAllan Williams, a local boxing promoter and club owner, saw new vistas open up before him in the crowds of teenagers queuing up to see their idols from the other side of the Atlantic.  Williams could smell a five pound note from a mile away so it didn't take him long to get in touch with Parnes about doing some joint productions in the future.  He is destined to loom large in the Beatles legend.

It's just another instance of how the stars seemed to align in just the right way to ensure that the world would experience the phenomenon known as the Beatles.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Lightning Strikes

So, in 1957, John and Paul were two teenagers, somehow living within a mile of each other, each of whom had found a consuming passion in popular music.  John, always the leader, had formed his own "band" made up of his friends, musical talent optional.  Paul had, with the encouragement of his Dad, traded in a trumpet for a big Arch-top Jazz Guitar called a Zenith model 17.

July 6,1957 was the date of the Woolton's St Peters Parish Church carnival.  Booked to play at that event was John Lennon's Quarrymen.  The band played in a grand procession from the back of a flatbed truck, then later outside on the grounds of the church.  They were to play again in the evening inside the church hall.  While waiting for that show to begin, Paul McCartney arrived with his guitar over his shoulder in time to hang out at the informal rehearsal that John and friends were using to "tune up" for the show.

During a lull in the music, Paul picks up his guitar and reels off  Twenty Flight Rock, a current top 40 hit by Eddie Cochran and Be Bop a Lula by Gene Vincent.  John noticed this kid had talent and now had a decision to make.  Ask him to join the group and thus share some of his status as leader or reject him and occupy the alpha dog position alone?  That decision resulted in the first big change for a group that would continue to evolve for the next decade and a half and have an unimaginably huge influence on music and culture around the world.


Panorama of the field behind St Peters Church Woolton

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Musical McCartneys

The McCartney family occupied a place in Liverpool society a rung or two lower than George and Mimi Smith.  Jim McCartney was a cotton salesman, a reasonably secure job when Liverpool was a thriving port.  Mary McCartney brought in  some extra money as a nurse/midwife.  Unlike the Smiths who owned their own half of a semi-detached home, they had to rely on government supported council housing, but there was no shame in that.  (Photo of 20 Forthlin Road.)  They had "a couple of kids running in the yard" called Paul and Michael.


In his younger days, Jim was a good amateur musician, a valued friend in that time and place.  He told the kids that they should learn to play an instrument, "because that way they'd always be invited to parties".  A piano was part of the McCartney home furniture (obtained from the Epstein family's furniture store).  Paul grew up in a much more stable, though less affluent, home environment and was a more friendly, less rebellious type than JL.

A dark cloud obscured the sunshine of this home when Mary fell victim to breast cancer, a disease against which there was little that could be done by the medicine of that time.  Paul was 14 and a promising student at the prestigious Liverpool Institute.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In the Beginning

John Lennon was born on the 9th of October, 1940 while the Battle of Britain was being fought over the skies of that country.  Because of the war, attitudes were rapidly changing.  Young people, not knowing when they would be called off to fight or be buried under a large pile of rubble by a bomb began to adopt a live-for-today philosophy.  Julia Stanley, John's mother, certainly seemed to be an example of that.  Of course, even the most free-thinking of young men of that time knew that getting a girl pregnant meant a quick trip down to the registry office to "tie the knot" and that's just what Alfred Lennon and Julia had done.

That relationship lasted until Alf decided his future lay elsewhere than the north of England.  The five year old John was given the choice of going with his dad, maybe to New Zealand, or staying with his mother in Liverpool.  Pretty hard to imagine expecting a little boy to make a life altering decision for himself, but I guess times were different then.  (Listen to  "I'll Be Back" sometime with that thought in mind.)

Soon, John was sent off to live with his Aunt Mimi Smith.  Mimi was Julia's childless older sister who was living with her husband George in a middle class suburb of Liverpool called Woolton Village.  Mimi was very much from the old school of domestic relations and child rearing.  John, on the other hand, was a born iconoclast and that led to many a conflict in the Smith household.

Meanwhile, as the wave of war babies got older, a new class of kids, called teenagers, was born.  American music, such as that from Lonnie Donegan, with it's free rhythms and grass roots lyrics was a natural  attraction to them in general and John in particular. It's not difficult to see that beneath her hard exterior, Mimi had a soft heart when John managed to talk her into buying a mail order guitar for him.  It was 1956 and he was 16 years old.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Liverpool


 What was it about Liverpool? What was it about the cultural background of that Northern England city that made possible the birth and growth of the talents that became the Beatles.
                                     
Liverpool, first and foremost, was a port city and a major focus was the sea and shipping. Between the wars shipbuilding was a major industry. After the war, Liverpool went into an economic slump as air travel became more common and demand for ocean going passenger ships declined. Chronic unemployment became a real problem                 .

But the people of Liverpool always had a way of shining through. In England, as in the United States, there was a great cultural division between north and south, but whereas in the US the people of the south were said to have a more friendly down-home attitude, in England it was the people of the north who lived a less regimented life. (You get an echo of that in A Hard Day's Night when the London policeman had a few words with Ringo about "chucking stones about" and Ringo mutters "Southerner", kind of the English equivalent of "Damn Yankees".)

Especially up north in pubs and homes, the people made their own entertainment. It was their way of hanging together and muddling through. Many of the best English comedians came from the north and Liverpool was a major source. Everyone from childhood on would be expected to tell a joke, play and instrument or sing a song whenever people gathered.

John Lennon's mother Julia was a bit of a life-of-the-party girl and did her share of making people smile. To help out, she learned a few chords on a popular hybrid instrument called a banjolele, constructed like a banjo and strung and tuned like a ukelele. Little did she suspect, I'm sure, where those few chords would lead!