Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Beatle Year in Review

December 31, 1961

A fateful day.  The Beatles and Neil Aspinall shoehorn themselves and their equipment into a rented van for a projected six hour drive down to London.  They are scheduled to do a recording test tomorrow, New Years day, at Decca's studio in West Hampstead.  New manager Brian Epstein has pulled all the strings and levers he knows to get it for them.  The plans didn't allow for a blizzard of historic proportions that results in some ten hours of nervous driving before their arrival at their hotel.  Brian has booked them into the Royal Hotel in Woburn Place.  No more dossing down in damp basements and glorified broom closets.  Brian will see to that.

Yet another minor coincidence.  Look at the Google Earth satellite view for the Royal National Hotel, Woburn Place.  A jet liner?!  You don't see that very often in GE.


1961 in Review

Whew!  What a ride it's been this year.  At the beginning of 1961, it was not a sure thing that the end of that year would see the Beatles still making music together.  Longtime followers of this blog will remember, one year ago, the band was sent home from Germany with its tail between its legs after it was discovered that George was underage and after Bruno Koschmider made a mountain out of a burning condom molehill.  After their return home, it seems they couldn't even face each other for a while and a slightly different turn of events could have prevented them from re-forming at all.

But, as always where the Beatles are concerned, fate stepped in to lend a hand.  The very much improved band was welcomed back enthusiastically by the Liverpool kids and so they regained their drive and equilibrium.  Another grueling stint in Hamburg at the Top Ten Club further honed the blade that will soon make mincemeat out of the popular music world.  Stuart Sutcliffe, a very key influence on the early Beatles style-wise if not musically, has stayed in Germany and keeps in touch with the band, and especially his best friend John, via post.

Of course, up till now, Germany has been a major contributor to the development of the band, and it will continue to play a role, but their center has definitely shifted back to Liverpool and specifically the legendary Cavern Club.  The local music scene, helped along in no small measure by our unsung hero Sam Leach and others, is burgeoning.  A minor recording has brought them to the attention of a local businessman.  He has the all important "public school manners" and can open doors for them that they would never be allowed otherwise to enter.  (Note: British public schools = US private schools)

There are disappointments yet to suffer and many good times to be had as well before the story is told.  Happy New Year, fans and friends.  See you in 1962.

P.S.  Hey, it's a holiday.  You've got some time to kill, right.  Here's an hour long interview with Sam Leach where he talks about the early days in Liverpool that will soon be coming to an end.  One of the best Beatles early history documents I've ever found.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Stepping Out of the Frame

Happy Krimble, Beatle fans.

I'm stepping out of the normal post format of 50 years ago today to offer kudos to Jude Southerland Kessler for her new book "Shivering Inside".  She is destined to join the pantheon of Beatle historians.  Her book is fantastic and fits extremely well with idea of this blog. 

I originally started the blog because I remembered how rewarding it was to follow the (rather cobbled up) log book of the voyages of Christopher Columbus on exactly the 500th anniversary of their entry (taking into account the calendar adjustment) back in 1992.  I think, it gives a reader a much better sense of the actual event if one experiences the events in "real time" instead of "all at once", like in a usual written history.

Like Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff", Jude has "invented" carefully researched and documented vignettes in the history of the biggest band in history, just as they were breaking into the mainstream, December 1961 to April 1963.  For any Beatle fan with the imagination to go along, it is a thrilling ride.  Do yourself a favor and order this book here.  (If you're nice, Ms Kessler might personalize and sign your copy!)

December 25, 1961

The Beatles are waiting to see what their new manager will do for them, especially as regards a recording contract.  They play the Tower Ballroom tomorrow and the Cavern for the rest of the week to finish out 1961, including a Cavern Beatles Christmas show on the 27th.  If you want to see some great photos of the boys arranged by Brian Epstein, their first professional shoot, just before he put them in suits, lookie here.

Albert Marrion Photo, December 17, 1961

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rocking Around the Clock

December 23, 1961

The Beatles are still appearing almost daily at the Cavern and are packing them in as their local popularity soars.  It is almost weird the way very little of this HUGE movement in the history of popular music is almost completely missed by the local press.  They continue to write about garden parties and new housing developments and are almost blind to the elephant standing in the corner.  Fortunately, there are those, like Sam Leach and now Brian Epstein, who are beginning to see that this movement could be more than a colorful local oddity.  Isn't that always the way with really new game changing phenomenon, though?  The general population just suddenly wakes up, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes.  Not yet.  Not in Liverpool.  Except among those crazy kids who are queuing up hours early for admission to the shows.

And tonight they have a big treat in store.  An all night show in the damp and smelly confines of the Cavern Club.  The Beatles play along with the Remo Four, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers, with a couple of jazz bands thrown in for good measure.  The Beatles' Cavern Days, though numbered, are not over yet.  "Where are we goin', lads?"

Friday, December 16, 2011

As If Waking From a Dream

December 15, 1961

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best get their first look at a management contract, produced by Brian Epstein, that could legalize their management arrangement with him.  While they agree it is inadequate to their needs, it does become the template which Brian uses as a starting point for writing his own contract with them.  They have agreed in principle that they would sign with him.

Brian starts applying his civilizing influence right away, telling them to lose the leather jackets and jeans all together.  First, Brian gives them a "preppie" look, asking them to wear sweaters and slacks on stage, but there are even bigger image changes in planning.

John Lennon:  "We were in a dream til he came along.  We had no idea what we were doing.  Seeing our marching orders on paper made it all official.  Brian was trying to clean our image up, but at the same time he didn't want us suddenly looking square.  He would tell us jeans were not particularly smart and could we possibly manage to wear proper trousers.  He literally f*ckin' cleaned us up. There were great fights between him and me, over me not wanting to dress up, and he and Paul wanting me to dress up.  In fact, he and Paul had some kind of collusion to keep me straight."  Even after 50 years, that does ring true, doesn't it?

Later on that evening, they appear with the new band first formed by their friend from the recent London adventure, Brian Cassar (Cass and the Cassanovas).  It's yet another Operation Big Beat event at the Tower Ballroom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Busy Brian

December 13, 1961

Even though Brian Epstein hasn't yet formalized a relationship with the Beatles, he has been working on getting them a recording contract.  (We have to assume he had decided to sign them, against Allen William's advice to "not touch them with a barge pole").  Brian uses his considerable clout as an important record retailer to contact Tony Barrow, who writes a column in the Liverpool Echo newspaper and also coincidentally holds a position writing sleeve notes for Decca Records in London.  Mr Barrow sees the wisdom in giving one of Decca's bigger customers the benefit of  the doubt concerning this "wild hair" band of his.  He arranges with Dick Rowe, head of Decca A and R, to send an assistant, named Mike Smith, up to Liverpool to listen to the band in the their home club, the Cavern.  His arrival causes quite a stir in the club  It is a feather in Brian Epstein's cap and no doubt impresses the Beatles in a big way.  But this is the beginning of THE biggest missed opportunity in the history of show business.

In a parallel development, Motown Records, the Detroit label, achieves it's first number one hit in the USA.  The song is "Please Mr Postman" by the Marvelettes and will be covered by the Beatles. (Just listen to those backing vocals.)  A major source of inspiration for the Beatles is developing fast.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Late again

December 10, 1961

The Beatles drive back north to Liverpool and barely make it back in time to play a scheduled date at the infamous Hambleton Hall. In fact they arrive only with enough time to play a short 15 minute set.  Brian Epstein is beginning to see the outlines of the job he is getting himself in for: turning this rather catch as catch can group into a professional outfit.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Where is Aldershot?

December 9, 1961

There it is!  About 35 miles or 50 km south-west of London.

The Beatles have to get up early to pile themselves and their equipment into the Beatles van for the 9 hour drive down to Aldershot.  Sam Leach is thinking that he will never get any London booking agents up to Liverpool, so he must bring the mountain to Mohammad.  He books a string of evening performances for the Beatles at the Palais Ballroom in Aldershot.  Unfortunately, due to a minor comedy of errors, his promotional advertising campaign doesn't come off as planned so when the Beatles arrive, they find that there is no audience for them to play for.  They start an impromptu ad campaign of  their own, running around town and telling everyone about the free show at the Palais tonight.  They manage to bring in a "crowd" of 18 curious locals and... the show must go on... do their show for them.

That night, with no place to stay, they point the van to an underground club in London's Soho district run by an old Liverpool friend, Brian Cassar of Cass and the Cassanovas where they jump on stage for an ad hoc concert minus George.  Their inauspicious first London appearance.

This proves a disappointing experience for them and Leach.  Of course a gig a bit closer to London itself might have had a better effect, but to Liverpudlians with a hazy grasp of geography, London and "the south" were somewhat synonymous.

Who's that lefty bassist on stage?
When all else fails...  (Sam in front)
Just a small aside.  Whenever I look at my blog stats, it always makes my heart beat a little faster when I see someone visiting from the UK.  Anyone out there from Aldershot?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jones and Williams and Leach

December 8, 1961

The third of Sam Leach's Operation Big Beat at the Tower Ballroom takes place this evening, after the Beatles play the obligatory lunchtime gig at the Cavern.  Davy Jones (NOT the Monkee, the black blues singer) appears on both bills with their backing.  In addition, singer Danny Williams, a black pop star from South Africa with a UK number 1 hit version of "Moon River", is on both shows.  (How different were the times, then!)  And they are anticipating their very first campaign to the south of England, Aldershot and LONDON, organized by the same Sam Leach, which starts tomorrow!

(Sam, if you're seeing this,  thanks a million, once again.  Without you, it might not have happened at all.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Momentous Meeting

December 3, 1961

Today the Beatles, in addition to playing a gig at the Best basement's Casbah Club, meet with Brian Epstein at his office above his store in Whitechapel Street, a short distance from the Cavern.  The story goes that Paul McCartney was late for the meeting.  George is recruited to "ring him up" and see what's keeping him and soon returns with the news that Paul is in the bath.  Epstein is furious.  How could Paul be so cavalier as to forget to be prompt to this meeting which might have such a large impact on his entire future?  George's reply?  "Well, he is late, but at least he is very clean!"  The quick and natural wit immediately takes the edge off Brian's anger.

Brian Epstein, decidedly a member of the upper crust of Liverpool society, seems to have been in a constant search for a place in the world.  So far he has failed as an English schoolboy, a member of the military and as an actor.  Epstein had made fast friends with the successful  English actor named Brian Bedford, while Bedford was playing Hamlet at Liverpool Playhouse.  Bedford convinced Epstein that he should try out for a spot at the Royal Academy of  Dramatic Art (RADA), the most prestigious acting school in England at that time.  After three promising terms there, Epstein again became dissatisfied and returned to the furniture store founded by his grandfather in Liverpool and specialized in the record department.

Epstein, a sensitive soul if ever there was one, sees immediately what makes the Beatles tick.  In addition to their musicianship, which is considerable, they seem to possess that certain undefinable something we call charm.  And he also knows that that quality is an essential ingredient in the making of a popular act.  But while many performers are groomed for it, Brian knows he is looking at that rarest of birds, a bunch of kids who come by it naturally.  It doesn't take him long to see that there was a future for these boys and that he wants to be part of it.  ( I think there can be little doubt that the 100 proof sex appeal the Beatles exude has influenced the closetted gay businessman on some level, whether conscious or not.)

In any case, on this day, Brian Epstein and the Beatles adjourn to a local cafe and seem to get along well.  Brian begins to think in concrete terms of how he can be part of this phenomenon  But before anything gets signed, he has some research to do.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Scandal in West Derby

Novenber 24, 1961

You'll remember that one of the most important behind the scenes people in the Beatles story is Pete Best's mother Mona, who always believed in the boys potential and even gave her basement over to establish a club for the kids to gather and listen to music.  She must have been very young at heart herself.

And then there is the Beatles longtime friend, Neil Aspinall, who rents a room at the Best residence and who has purchased a used Commer van and has become the Beatles roadie, transporting them and their equipment all over Liverpool for a few shillings per appearance.  (In addition to his regular job as an accountant in training.)
Neil stands in for George at a Sullivan rehearsal

Well, in the seething cauldron that was the Beatles inner circle, this unlikely pair have somehow become lovers.  In about nine months time the undeniable proof of this fact will come into this world as Pete Best's half brother Vincent, known as Roag.  The Beatles, including Pete, seem to have taken it all in stride and Neil, called affectionately Nell by the members of the band, will have a long history with them, heading up Apple almost until his death in 2008.

The Beatles are playing almost everyday at the Cavern with a night at the Merseyside Civil Service Club.  And a very big  appearance at the second of Sam Leach's Operation Big Beat concerts at the Tower Ballroom occurs today, Friday the 24th.  Surprise guests Emile Ford and Davy Jones (black blues singer, not the future Monkee) appear as surprise guests.  The Beatles back Mr Jones and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes do the honors for Emile Ford.  Real recording artists!

And if you happen to be in Liverpool today, get on down the the Albert Dock, by all means.

                                                           Operation Big Beat II 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rougher Side of Liverpool

Late 1961

The Beatles seem to be marking time, waiting for the next "something will happen".  They are playing many gigs at the Cavern and the Casbah, with a sprinkling of miscellaneous dates at places like Litherland and Knotty Ash town halls and a venue called Hambleton Hall.  It's a good time to reflect on some of the hazards of a life as a north of England rock band.  Hambleton Hall was one of the most awful places the Beatles played.  Sam Leach says of it "It was like a war zone.  It was terrible.  I was scared going in there.  There was gang fighting outside, Teddy Boys, you know."  One night at Hambleton Hall, after the show Paul and George are accosted by a gang of toughs and given a sound beating. I'm sure they saw it as an inconvenience to be avoided where possible and endured when not.  That they could accept this as the price of  following their muse says a lot about their determination.

Page Moss, where Hambleton Hall was located, is still a place of youth gang activity as shown in a BBC "Panorama" in 2008.  A bit of imagination makes clear the kind of proletarian places, with their thinly veiled atmosphere of hopelessness and violence, the Beatles brighten up and enliven with their music.  But that phase of their careers will soon be coming to an end.  They have been well prepared for the next step.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Operation BIG BEAT

November 10, 1961

Coming so soon on the heels of their first meeting with Brian Epstein is yet another very big day in the history of the worlds biggest band.  The first Operation Big Beat, another groundbreaking Sam Leach production, is taking place in the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton.  (No question. As well as being a important cog in the Beatles machine, Sam is an English national treasure.)

New Brighton is a local playground for the people of Liverpool to get a little sun and fun on weekend ferry excursions across the Mersey.  (It's kinda like Coney Island is to NYC.)  The Tower Ballroom has been a place for shows and exhibitions since 1900 and it is ready now, with Mr Leach's help, to put on some or this new rock and roll music. The ballroom itself is named for a large steel tower that was originally part of the building but has long since fallen into disrepair and been removed.  (In those days Seaports, especially Britannia's seaports, often have seaside towers for signaling ships far out at sea.)

Sam, never one to do things by half measures, books five of the biggest Mersey side groups for a mammoth show lasting from 7:30 pm until one in the morning next day.  It's definitely the next step up the ladder for the Beatles, as this venue can hold up to 5000 people.  It is the largest space by far they have ever played!  Hey this is turning into something pretty big.  Just look at all those punters out there!

Lastly a Link for Lucky Liverpudlians

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mr Epstein is Here

November 9, 1961

Spurred on by all the local buzz about this group improbably called "the Beatles", including a request for the record at his store, Brian Epstein makes the long walk 600 feet down narrow alleyways to the Cavern Club to see these boys for himself.  He later records his first impressions in his book "Cellar Full of Noise".

"There on the platform at the end of the cellar's middle tunnel stood the four boys.  Then I eased myself towards the stage, past rapt young faces and jigging bodies and for the first time I saw the Beatles properly...  I had never seen anything like  the Beatles on any stage.  They smoked as they played and they ate and talked and pretended to hit each other.  They turned their backs on the audience and shouted at them and laughed at private jokes.  But they gave a captivating and honest show and they had considerable magnetism... There was quite clearly an excitement in the otherwise unpleasing dungeon which was quite removed from any of the formal entertainments provided at places like the Liverpool  Empire or the London Palladium, though I learned later that the response to the Beatles was falling off a little in Liverpool - they like me were becoming bored because they could see no great progress in their lives."

Very shortly afterward, he decided to invite the Beatles personally around to his office at North End Music Stores for an informal chat.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Raymond Jones, Where Are You?

October 30, 1961

Well, Bob Wooler has been loaned the only pressing the Beatles had of their newly released 45 (sent to them by Stuart Sutcliffe from Germany) and has been playing it at all of the jive shows that he MCs around Liverpool.  It must have been pretty exciting for everyone that one of the local Liverpool bands had achieved this milestone.  So it was inevitable that one of the listeners would make his way to North End Music Stores in hopes of buying his own copy.  According to legend, his name was Raymond Jones and he spoke directly to the proprietor, Mr Brian Epstein.  Mr Epstein assured him that, although he did not have the disk on hand (in fact he had never even heard of it) he would bring all of his considerable talents to bear to obtain a copy.

At first Epstein thought these "Beatles" must be a German band.  Soon enough, he had discovered that that particular group was playing almost every day just a short distance away from the door of  his shop.  In his most proper English way, Epstein pulled a few strings and arranged a visit for himself to the Cavern through Bill Harry, publisher of Mersey Beat Magazine.  Who were these musicians, performing under such an unlikely name so near to this own store?

Beat Brothers = Beatles :-)
I love how the label tells you what dance you can to to this recording - the Twist!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Paul's Coffin

October 1961
A Barber "Coffin"

Nobody know exactly when, but sometime around now Paul McCartney made another improvement to the Beatles sound that is echoing down to us even today, 50 years later.  He obtained a custom made "reflex" bass speaker cabinet with a 15" speaker inside.  At the time, based on its size and shape, it was called "the Coffin".

Paul had it made by a fellow Liverpool musician from a group called the Big Three named Adrian Barber.  (Note the intro from Bob Wooler on that recording.  Cool!)  Barber is an unsung hero of the history of rock and roll because in addition to his interest in music, he also had some experience in the new technology of "electronics".  The Big Three boasted the loudest drummer on the Mersey Beat scene, Johnny Hutchison.  In order to be heard over the drums, Barber had to figure out how to build bigger and better amplification for himself and his bass player partner, Johnny Gustafson.

When Paul saw the huge new cabinet, he knew he had to have one, so he went to the source and asked Barber to make one for him.  For amplification, he just unhooked the speaker wires from his 30 watt Selmer TruVoice amp and connected them to the new cabinet.  Paul said later "Adrian made me a great bass amp that he called the Coffin.  And man!  Suddenly that was a total other world.  That was bass as we know it now."  Pete Best just remembers what a job it was to get it down the narrow stairway to the Cavern cellar!

Cavern 1961 - McCartney and band mates play off the "Coffin" nickname     (c) Apple - Peter Kaye

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Ringo Kid

October 24, 1961

Richard Starkey (aka Ringo) is entertaining thoughts of his future.  Right now, he's is drumming for one of the most popular of the Mersey side bands, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  (Some great reminiscences from Johhny "Guitar" Bryne of the Hurricanes here.)  Like John Lennon, Ringo is 21 years old and is wondering how long this music lark can last. 

The Ringo nickname is a result of the English craze for anything American and in those days "American" was represented in the popular imagination as "Western", as in "cowboy". (John Wayne played the Ringo Kid in the 1939 movie "Stagecoach".  Maybe Ritchie should have been more realistic about the whole idea, like Kris Kristofferson in a later version of the same story.  Yeah, that's Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, not to mention cowboy movie standby Andy Devine, on board.)

As he ponders what the future might bring, a natural attraction would be the wide open spaces of the American West.  Who can know what images ran through his head of maybe signing on to a cattle drive from Laredo to Kansas City with a couple of thousand head of Texas longhorn.  In any case, Ringo writes to the Houston, Texas Chamber of Commerce for information on immigration to the states.  Today, the chamber sends off a reply to Ringo, complete with a list of employment agencies.  For whatever reason, he decides against making the move across the Atlantic just yet.  But he's keeping his options open.

Imagine how different the history of music would have been if he had decided differently.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bonnie and the Saints

October 23, 1961

The single version of "My Bonnie" with "The Saints" on the flip side by Tony Sheridan (backed up by the "Beat Brothers") is released in Germany.  In a few days, the Beatles good friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who is studying art in Hamburg, will obtain a copy and send it to his friend George Harrison at home in Liverpool.  George in turn will loan it to Liverpool compere and Mersey Beat mover and shaker Bob Wooler.  Mr Wooler will play the single at some of his beat music dances and begin to talk it up in his inimitable style.  The appearance of one of their own bands on a commercial record is a very big event.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Karl and the Beatmakers

October 19, 1961

Yet another very big event in the story of the Beatles demonstrates vividly, 50 years later, the camaraderie and pure joy that the Merseyside musicians are enjoying.  Again, the event is promoted by Brian Kelly's BeKay Productions and takes place at Litherland Town Hall.

On the bill tonight are The Beatles, Karl Terry and the Cruisers and Gerry and the Pacemakers, three of the biggest Merseyside bands.  Someone has the typically crazy idea that the three bands (with many of the same songs in their sets) should join forces for just one night.  The pick-up band called themselves the Beatmakers and they performed all the biggest rock standards, one imagines, in the most raucous manner possible.  The band members even went so far as to try out new stage personas.  Gerry Marsden wore George's leather get-up and George wore a hoodie (talk about being ahead of his time!)  The two drummers, Pete Best and Freddie Marsden shared one kit.  The group also included John Lennon on piano and Les McGuire on sax.  Bill Harry, publisher of Mersey Beat magazine, who is in a position to know, says that Paul McCartney, on rhythm guitar, appeared in a nightie!

Thank goodness that Brian Epstein (unbeknownst to him, yet) is on the way to bring some order to this happy chaos.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How Will You Keep Them Down on the Mersey

October 15, 1961

John and Paul, tired and broke, return to Liverpool and the old grind of gigs after their vacation in Paris.  The new hairstyle, inspired by the Paris scene, is here to stay.  John, Paul and George are all wearing it now.  Only Pete Best continues to go his own way, tonsorially speaking.  The Beatles, as a group, never made overt demands on the individual members, peer pressure was enough to keep the band moving in a common direction in matters of both music and fashion.

Alain Delon on set
Here's an interesting youtube clip that shows what was happening in French cinema at the time, which heavily influenced the Beatles' changing style.  It's from the 1960 movie Plein Soliel (Purple Noon) and stars Alain Delon, who sports a remarkably "fashion forward" hairstyle.(Of course, these are just the first rumblings of the nouveau style.  The Beatles and others will take it to further heights in years to come.  In matters of style, evolution is the watchword.)

Now that they are back, the Beatles jump into the deep end, playing two gigs today.  One is a rare benefit, organized by unsung hero Jim Gretty, a guitarist and salesman at Hetty's Music Store on Matthew Street where many of the Beatles' instruments came from.  The gig is held at Albany Cinema for the local ambulance company.  They play this evening at Hambleton Hall, one of the rougher of their regular venues.

They are back at the Cavern FIVE times this week, and they play on the 17th at a show organized by their very own month-old fan club at a one-off venue, David Lewis Club in central Liverpool.  There is also a legendary appearance at Litherland (more later) and one at Knotty Ash to round out the week.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Happy 21st, John

October 9, 1961

Today is John Lennon's milestone 21st Birthday.  I wonder exactly how he and Paul and Jurgen celebrated it on the streets and in the cafe's of Paris.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Meeting Jurgen in the Middle

October 8, 1961

Paul and John are in Paris where they run into Jurgen Vollmer, and are just taking it easy for a change.  It is hard to overestimate how important their German friends are the to the development of the Beatles.  While the music is central to the Beatles appeal, their lifestyle and personal charisma are just as important and those things are heavily influenced by the Germans and their continental outlook.

Why does it seem that everything that happens to the Beatles seems to be part of some preordained script?  They work their butts off, playing long stretches in Germany and schlepping equipment all over the Liverpool area, almost never missing a gig.  Honing and polishing the music and unifying the Beatles sound into an ever better and better live presentation.  And then something whispers to John, "It's time to sag off work for a couple of weeks and take in a bit of the good life in Paris."  (Interesting side note:  Cynthia Lennon says in her book "John" that he is beginning to wonder how long this music lark will last and what he will do when it's over.  You can't go on playing rock and roll to ballrooms full of teenagers when you're 30, can you?)

While he and Paul are in Paris, they must be taking in the fashions prevalent there which will later become part of their personnas (via Brian Epstein), fashions which are so out of step with their own cultural milieu of working class northern England.  Jurgen Vollmer, one of their very oldest German friends, is a very big influence.  There are lots of pictures taken by him here (including John's favorite of him standing in a Hamburg doorway).

This is a very important time for them, indeed.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Paris is Burning

September 30 - October 15, 1961

John Lennon receives a generous gift of 100 English pounds from his aunt Mater (sister of his mother Julia).  He decides immediately that he and his musical partner Paul McCartney should spend some time soaking up the romantic atmosphere in Paris, France.  Completely out of character, they run off to the continent and spend the money lounging in cafes and looking cool.  They connect with an old friend from Hamburg, one of the exis, Jurgen Vollmer, who is in Paris studying photography.  During this visit they are immersed in French youth culture.  One feature of French cool is the longer "continental" hairstyle they will permanently adopt while on this visit.  They have been leaning in that direction for months now.  On this visit they really commit to the nouveau style.  No more going back to the Elvis/Gene Vincent inspired pompadour or "waterfall" haircuts.

Paul and Jurgen Vollmer                  John in Paris looking cool    

Friday, September 30, 2011

Original Thoughts

September 29, 1961

The Beatles play a new venue today, Knotty Ash Village Hall, a concert organized by Pete Best's mother, Mona.  It's their last performance before John and Paul uncharacteristically take off for two weeks in Paris, leaving the other band members and local promoters in the lurch. 

The Beatles now are almost exclusively a band that covers music written and performed by other artists.  Their main occupation is performing popular music for the jive shows in Liverpool, where their audience would meet, dance and socialize.  However, members of the band had penned a few of their own songs by this time and some of them made their way into the repertoire.  One gets the impression they see it as a side bar to the real job, recreating the music that their listeners were already familiar with.

The really interesting thing about these very early songs is that, while they are not up to the standard of sophistication that Lennon and McCartney (mostly) would soon achieve, they have a certain undefinable something that sets them apart from the ordinary.  It's as if we are seeing the embryo of some newly discovered extraterrestrial creature and wondering what will it look like as an adult.

Some of the earliest songs that are being played live now, but recorded later are:
   Hold Me Tight (McCartney 1961)
   Love Me Do (McCartney 1958)
   I'll Follow the Sun (McCartney 1960)
   One After 909 (Lennon 1957?)

There are also songs that are sometimes toyed with by the Beatles later in the studio, but which are never commercially released by them.  Sometimes these are later recorded by other artists, but for now they form part of the Beatles set list.
   Hello Little Girl  (Lennon 1957 - the surprise in the wrap up to this song is especially prophetic)
   Love of the Loved (McCartney 1958?)
   Like Dreamers Do (McCartney 1957)
   I'll Be On My Way (McCartney)

Also, some early songs not know to be played live at this time:
   I Call Your Name (Lennon)
   In Spite of All the Danger (McCartney 1957)
   Cayenne (McCartney/Harrison 1960)
   Cry For a Shadow (Lennon/Harrison 1961)
   Like Dreamers Do (McCartney 1957)
   Winston's Walk (Lennon 1960?- in a fit of post-WWII patriotism, his mother chose Winston as John's middle name)

One thing that strikes me about these songs is the dominant influence of McCartney.  It seems likely that he is the precocious songwriter who first sees the potential of writing music as a vocation.  That is probably a reflection of his unshakeable self confidence, a trait that Lennon, down deep, is sorely lacking.  It might be that Paul is inadvertently "lighting a fire" under John and initiating the very fruitful competition that would become the most successful songwriting team of all time.  It is a theme that the partners would use again and again.  Paul discovering the new thing and John putting his unique and crucial spin on it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Beatcomber One

September 14, 1961

Today, John Lennon's first article (under pen name: Beatcomber) appears in Mersey Beat magazine.  Bill Harry, the publisher, recognizes early the crazy genius that is John.  John, never one to be restricted by rules that apply to everyone else, writes in a wildly creative style that owes a lot  to Lewis CarrollHere's a link to that first article.

I love this quote from Lewis Carroll about coining a word for his poem "Jabberwocky", which I think might well describe John Lennon's process. 

On coining the work "frumious:: "[T]ake the two words 'fuming' and 'furious'. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards 'fuming', you will say 'fuming-furious'; if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards 'furious', you will say 'furious-fuming'; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say 'frumious'."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Beatle Girls

September, 1961
John and Cynthia               Paul and Dot

The Beatles continue to play the usual venues and their local popularity continues to climb. John and Paul are both involved in serious relationships.  John, of course, is with his Cynthia Powell. And Paul is nearing the end of his long term relationship with Dorothy "Dot" Rhone.  (Do I detect portents of the future, e.g. Yoko Ono, Jane Asher?  Leopards really don't change their spots, I suppose.)

Cynthia's father has died, leaving a young widow to finish raising their daughter.  But now, Cyn is a young adult and an opportunity has arisen for her mother to emigrate to Canada in the company of relatives.  After weighing the pros and cons carefully, she has decided to make the move.  Cynthia has assured her mother that she is perfectly capable of looking after herself.

Her relationship to John is now in its fourth year and getting more and more serious.  John has already toyed with the idea of marrying her once or twice.  His relationship with her has always been a very complex one, as has been the case in all of his relationships with women starting with his own mother.  Tender concern and generosity can be quickly succeeded by brutal violence in their romantic life.  But through it all an abiding love cannot be doubted. In the event, Cynthia asks John's Aunt Mimi if she can occupy a room in her home as a paying lodger and it is agreed.  With John still living there, they see a lot of each other, although Mimi will certainly brook no nonsense under her roof in the romantic department!

To earn her keep Cynthia gets a job as a shop girl at Woolworth's and is expected to help with the domestic chores as well.

Paul, on the other hand is growing apart from his long term girlfriend, Dot Rhone.  She believes that she is more of a girlfriend in name only anyhow.  The temptations are many and the one night stands easy to fall into.  Dot knows about the wandering, but she has long since stopped caring, and the feeling she experiences is of freedom from a domineering relationship.  John often admonishes Paul, telling  him he should treat his steady girlfriend better, very much a bit of advice that might come from an older brother.  (Hmmm, sounds like a song idea.  Something like "You're Gonna Lose That Girl"?)

It all says something rather profound about the personalities of the two young men.  Don't you agree?  John is always searching for that deep commitment and ultimate fulfillment, Paul is mostly interested in enjoying the ride and making every second count.  Where will their partnership lead?

Friday, September 2, 2011

My Record Lies Over the Channel

September 1961

Polydor releases an EP of the recordings made in June by Tony Sheridan and the "Beat Brothers" into the German market.  (Beatles sounds too much like Peedles, Deutsch slang for a certain male body part.  Not exactly good for the image.  Hence the name change.)  In Europe in the 60's EP (Extended Play) recordings were very common format for retailing music.  They didn't become accepted in the US until much later.

In that day and age, when communication was as likely to be by letter as by telephone and email and blogging had not shown up in the most fevered dream of even the craziest sci-fi writer, the Beatles themselves probably didn't hear about it until weeks later.  The songs included on it are the famous "My Bonnie", a Sheridan original called "Why", a Lennon/Harrison original instrumental - "Cry For a Shadow" and the traditional jazz standard "The Saints" aka "When the Saints Come Marching In".

The Beatles are on out commercial vinyl for the first time!  Blissfully ignorant of  that fact, the band continues playing the Cavern, the Aintree Institute, Hambleton, and St Johns Hall.  Does music store entrepreneur Mr Epstein notice their omnipresence on the scene?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Jerry Leiber Connection

August 28- September 2, 1961

The Beatles are playing almost every day at the Cavern Club on Matthew Street in Liverpool, sometimes even twice a day there.  That must have made their lives a bit simpler, getting comfortable and friendly with the regulars.  This is the period when they are known to be eating sandwiches, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes on stage, taking a very casual attitude.  Their styles are becoming more casual, less stylised, too.  We see more tee shirts and "dungarees" (blue jeans, to you and me) and less leather.  And the hair is looking less piled high in the front.  One gets the sense they are preparing themselves for the next big change.  After all, the Beatles are all about following (or is it making?) change.

Among the songs the Beatles are covering regularly are at least nine penned by the American songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  These are some of their best numbers.  (Many of them came to the Beatles attention by way of Elvis Presley or the Coasters.  The bright line between white and black music is really blurring.)
  Three Cool Cats
  Thumbin' a Ride
  Stand By Me
  Kansas City
  Hound Dog
  Loving You
  Baby I Don’t Care

Jerry Leiber died last week (August 22, 2011) at the age of 78. Rest in peace and heartfelt thanks, Jerry.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Rock Band and a Clarinettist

August 21-27, 1961
Reproduction from This Ebay Store

The Beatles continue the long Cavern Club run and are gathering other bookings where they can.  They make another small step up this week.  On August 25th, a Friday, they are given a spot on an evening cruise boat called the Royal Iris, known locally as the "Fish and Chip Boat".  For a bit of relaxation, folks would make their way in the evening down to the Liverpool Pier Head, board the boat and be treated to a leisurely cruise around the wide Mersey estuary for 3 and a half hours.

The organizer of this particular cruise is Ray McFall, owner of the Cavern Club, so the popular Beatles are a natural fit to bring on board the younger crowd.  They will play the cruise after their lunchtime gig at the Cavern, of course.  Mr McFall also books a popular English clarinettist called Acker Bilk.  (Acker is Welsh slang for something like "pal" or "buddy".)  Bilk is a part of the still flourishing Trad Jazz movement in Liverpool.  His signature sound is a laid back low register clarinet that can be heard on his "Stranger on the Shore".  Bilk is meant to bring on the parents and older siblings of the Beatle fans.  With a little luck, it will mean a handsome payday for impresario McFall.  I can just imagine what John Lennon thought of this kind of excursion.  "Next, they'll be asking me to wear a suit and tie onstage!"

This is the first of four "Riverboat Shuffles" organized by McFall at which the Beatles will perform.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

1961 One Off Covers

August 13-20, 1961

One has to wonder what were the Beatles attitudes toward their careers at this time.  On the one hand they are making pretty good money doing something they obviously love.  On the other, there is a lot of work involved in what they do and anyone who has been in a long term musical relationship with other people knows that conflicts are sure to arise.  Looked at from one perspective, they could seem to be stuck in a bit of a rut.

They are playing this week four times at the Cavern, where their teenage following is becoming a rabid Beatle army.  The other places they play are St John's Hall, the Aintree Institute and Hambleton Hall., where fighting, fueled by the high energy music, often breaks out.  They have played all these places many times before  and to the same audience of local kids.  They have to be wondering where all this will  eventually lead.  They won't be young and happening forever.

The list of songs they are doing at this time is heavy with the very popular Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard.  But there are lots of artists whos songs they cover rarely and they are of interest, too.  They cover some pure American country songs like All Over Again from Johnny Cash, road house barn burners like Watch Your Step by Bobby Parker and very treacly pop songs like A House With Love In It from (believe it or not) Vera Lynn.  This is the fundamental source of  their amazing talent for catchy arrangements.  They are learning how to give anything a "Beatle spin" and make it sound great .  Wonderful training, indeed.

The songwriting talent is still largely beneath the surface, but there can be no doubt, the diverse selection of material is developing that subconsciously, too.  As a young man, Hunter S Thompson typed out the entire text to The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, hoping to gain an insight into the process of creative writing.  Seems a somewhat absurd approach, until you really think about it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sound Reinforcement

August 5-12, 1961

Cavern Club, Cavern Club, Cavern Club!  The Beatles play here six days out of seven this week.  There is a special all night show at the Cavern on the 5th, where the Beatles share the bill with a popular dixieland jazz trumpeter named Kenny Ball.  (I couldn't keep from tapping my foot to that youtube.  Be sure to listen for that hollered "Yeah!" going into the last verse, which makes the song for me.)  Must have been quite a diverse audience at that one.  Obviously, the Liverpool Cavern hasn't let go of its jazz music past.

On Monday, the 7th, they also appear at Litherland Town Hall.

I haven't really said much about how the Beatles amplified their electric instruments, so here's some info on that topic.  They must have been spending some of their hard earned cash on equipment because they are using some relatively good stuff.  Of course by today's standards, it is pretty marginal, unless you are into the vintage sound, but at the time, I'm sure it was adequate to knock the socks off the kids at their shows.

John, as always in the lead, is using what has become a classic (like his famous Rickenbacker), a tube (there was no solid state yet) Fender Deluxe amp, also called a "Tweed".  George is using a Gibson GA-40  Both of these amps are rated at about 15 watts, but they can really make some noise when cranked up..  These amps were put out by their respective guitar makers who understood that they wouldn't sell many new-fangled electric guitars without something to play them through.  In 1961, there are no amplifiers designed for bass amplification so, McCartney is playing through a barely adequate (for bass) Selmer Truvoice Stadium amp, which had been previously owned and used by George Harrison.  It is also rated at 15 watts.

If you are interested in this kind of thing, all of the above links are worth exploring.  But highly recommended is, a very fine site where you can research the equipment the Beatles are using at any point in their entire career.  Really well done.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mr Brian Epstein is here

July 29-August 4, 1961

The Beatles play two gigs at Blair Hall this weekend, four times at the Cavern (M,W,F lunch and W evening) with Litherland, Aintree and St John's Hall dates thrown in for good measure.

This week is the first hint that a Liverpool businessman named Brian Epstein is taking a serious interest in the local rock music scene.  On Thursday, August 3rd, Mersey Beat Magazine publishes his first record review column called "Stop the World - And Listen to Everything In It".

Brian Epstein had been born into an upper class entrepreneurial Jewish family  who had made their fortunes operating a furniture store.  Brian grew up a sensitive young man, always on the lookout for something new and interesting to occupy his  time (and keep the black dog from the door).  He had taken a special interest in the music department of the family business, which sold both musical instruments and records.  By now, he is managing his own branch  store on Whitechapel Street, called North End Music Stores, NEMS for short.  It is located a stones throw from the Cavern Club where, unbeknownst to him, the Beatles are building a loyal following of fans.  His inventory and demand tracking system (precomputer, of course) is legendary and if you want a record, he prides himself on either having it or being able to get it for you, regardless of how obscure the title.

Brian had, while sowing the wild oats of his  youth, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a prestigious acting school in London, where he had learned a little something about stagecraft and live performance.

He is a bit older and more widely experienced than the Beatles, almost 27 years old, (seems very young to me now!) and he is casting about for some way to leverage his talents and aptitudes to keep life interesting.  Perhaps writing a column for a local music newsletter would  lead to something.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jumping Forward 50 Years...

July 24, ????

50 years ago yesterday, Paul McCartney and the rest of the Beatles played once again at Litherland Town Hall, arguably, the birthplace of Beatlemania.  Last night, he played with his own band and filled a baseball stadium in Detroit with 30,000 plus ecstatic fans.  I was one of 'em, and let me tell you (as if you didn't know), he's still got it!

A special  thing he did last night was to pull out "Hitchhike", a Marvin Gaye song written just about 50 years ago. He and his band did a smokin' version of it in tribute to Motown, which was a major influence on the developing Beatles 50 years ago.  It was a bit of a time warp to listen to him do that song last night (and it was obviously done with a lot of  love.)  Really jerked me back to the 10 year old kid in me, who at that time was just discovering the power of music that would be tapped so irresistably by the band from Liverpool.  50 years ago their audiences were just sampling the first fruits of that memorable season.  Last night we tasted of some of the last.  Delicious!  Thank you, Paul.

Even McCartney has sound system problems, sometimes - but  stick with it, they do get through the song... eventually    :)

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Band Solidifies

July 22-28, 1861

The Beatles are now very nearly the band we will discover in the early '60s.  Stuart Sutcliffe isn't playing with them anymore, having stayed behind in Hamburg.  John has his Rickenbacker, Paul his Hofner "Beatle Bass" and George his Gretsch Duo Jet.  Of course, Pete Best still sits on the throne behind the drum kit and provides the "atom beat" that the Beatles are locally famous for, that heavy four-to-the-bar bass drum.  Again and again, one reads of reminiscences of early fans of the Beatles which mention how the sound would just go through you.  It is said that you felt it as much as heard it.  The excitement generated is irresistible.

How lucky those kids are to be there to experience it while the rest of the world sleeps (and quietly dreams of the Four Freshmen!)

The Beatles play three gigs at jive halls this weekend, the Aintree Institute on Friday, Holyoake Hall on Saturday and Blair Hall (with the sloping stage) on Sunday. Monday they are at Litherland Town Hall.  They play four mid-week sessions, both lunchtime and evening, at the Cavern, where they are quickly becoming the house band.  Then Thursday at St John's Hall and Friday back at the Aintree.  Obviously, the Liverpool promoters know a good thing when they see (and hear) it.  Sam Leach is beginning to get some "big" ideas that will come to fruition in November under the appellation of "Operation Big Beat", perhaps the high water mark of the inundation called the Mersey Beat sound.
P.S. Just found out, I'm going to see McCartney at Comerica Park in Detroit this Sunday.  Last time I saw him was 35 years ago, Wings Over America.  Thanks for asking, Chris.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Gretsch Story

July 15-21, 1961

The Beatles are back in the swing, appearing this weekend at Hoylake Hall (near Penny Lane) on Saturday the 15th and Blair Hall on Sunday.  Next week, they are doing their lunchtime sessions (M,W,F this week) at the Cavern.  During these, they will smoke, eat and drink tea, and kibitz with the customers from the stage.  Also, they will appear at Litherland Town Hall on Monday night, the Cavern on Wednesday night, St John's Hall on Thursday night and the Aintree Institute on Friday night.  Whew!

A modern reproduction of George's Duo Jet <<< Follow this link and watch the video (under Gallery)
But the big news is that George has found a new guitar, a guitar that would do as much to develop the Beatles sound as any. A semi-solid body Gretsch Duo Jet.  Beautiful, huh? He got is second hand from a seaman, named Ivan Hayward, who bought it in America, where it was made.  George had heard about the available guitar through the Merseyside grapevine, saw his chance and took it.  There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.  Wm Shakespeare

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

OK, Beatles, Back to Work

July 13, 1961

I'm sure the four Beatles have enjoyed their two weeks of summer indolence after their long hard stint at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg.  (Stuart has stayed behind in Hamburg to continue both his studies at the Hamburg College of Art and his relationship with fiancee Astrid Kirchherr.  The Beatles will continue a long distance relationship with him via the Post Office.)  But it's time for the Beatles to get back up on stage in their hometown.

Their first show after the layoff is, predictably, organized by Mona Best, again at St John's Hall near her home in  Hayman's Green, where the Casbah is located.  A more devoted mother, the world has never seen.

And on the 14th, they are back on stage at the Cavern for two shows, a lunch session and in the evening.

No doubt the Beatles have to knock the rust off to get back into their usual tight formation.  It's also likely that it didn't take long before they were relying, almost by instinct, on where the others would be going on each number.  After spending so many countless hours playing together, the band has become like a single multi-person organism.  That is the biggest secret of their later phenomenal success.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Merci, Mersey

July, 1961

To understand Liverpool, one must first understand the Mersey River.  Without the Mersey, Liverpool would not exist.  The original documents establishing Liverpool were drawn up in the time of the medieval King John in 1207.  For its first few centuries, Liverpool's main industries were fishing and farming.

In the 17th centrury, England was rapidly becoming the global maritime power. Liverpool began to develop as a major seaport.  Trade in commodities - cloth and coal for sugar and tobacco - exploded.  All thanks to the wide and deep harbor at the mouth of the Mersey River.  In the 19th, cotton produced abroad was needed to supply the fabric mills in northern England.  (Indeed, even in the middle of the 20th century, cotton still gave employment to Liverpudlians, like Jim McCartney, father of Paul, who was a cotton buyer.)  During this time the population grew rapidly as Irish families, looking for sustenance, came to Liverpool.  They were driven from their beloved homes by terrible famines resulting from a disease of the potato crop in Ireland.  Among the emigrants were the McCartneys and the McLennons.  If you have Irish ancestry and live abroad, the chances are pretty good that your people moved to your part of the world for the same desperate reason.  Ireland lost one million people to starvation and another million to emigration.

In the early part of the 20th century, Liverpool became a great center of ship building, which is why the stern of the Titanic has LIVERPOOL painted on its stern in large letters.
Click on the Titanic and look carefully at the stern
And that explains why the sound that originated in Liverpool became known as the Mersey sound, and why a local tabloid publication was called Mersey Beat Magazine.  Bill Harry is personally hawking copies of the first issue around to record stores, dance halls, and music stores.  (He lets his official distributor handle the newsstands.)

One of the record stores he visits happened to be North End Music Stores (NEMS) managed by Mr. Brian Epstein, who took a dozen copies of issue number one which sold out very quickly.  Next day, Epstein is on the phone to Harry, asking for 12 dozen more copies.  Maybe there is a business opportunity here that he should be paying more attention to.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mersey Beat Magazine

July 6, 1961

Today, the first issue of Mersey Beat magazine is published by Bill Harry.

Bill Harry is a small time writer and wanna-be magazine publisher from Liverpool.  (Harry is a friend of John Lennon from his Liverpool Art College days.)  He has some prior publishing and printing experience and sees a golden opportunity to  launch a magazine specially devoted to the burgeoning Liverpool rock scene.  He borrows 50 English pounds, enlists the help of his girl friend (later wife) Virginia and rents office space.  The magazine is a smashing success and immediately sells out the 5000 copies of the first run.  (Check out the front page add for Frank Hessy's music shop below, frequented by all the Beatles for their equipment needs.  It is a few yards down Matthew Street from the Cavern.)

Among the articles in this issue is one entitled ‘Being A Short Diversion on the Dubious Origins of Beatles, Translated From the John Lennon.'  Yeah, THAT John Lennon and it is a masterpiece of the silly humor that he would soon be famous for.
Once upon a time there were three little boys called John, George and Paul, by name christened. They decided to get together because they were the getting together type. When they were together they wondered what for after all, what for? So all of a sudden they all grew guitars and fashioned a noise. Funnily enough, no-one was interested, least of all the three little men. So-o-o on discovering a fourth little even littler man called Stuart Sutcliffe running about them they said, quote 'Sonny get a bass guitar and you will be alright' and he did.  Many people ask what are the Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision - a man appeared on a Flaming Pie and said unto them 'From this day on you are Beatles with an A'. 'Thank you, Mister Man,' they said, thanking him.

Bill Harry would get Lennon to write a regular column for Mersey Beat called Beatcomber.   The rocker pictured on the front page is Gene Vincent with a couple of local fans.

Issue Number 1 of Liverpool's Mersey Beat Magazine

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Trains, Boats and Automobiles

July 2-3, 1961

The Beatles are finished playing their second stint in Hamburg and use these two days to travel back home to Liverpool.  Before they could afford air travel, which is still for more wealthy travelers, it would usually take about 24 hours to complete the journey.

They have really stepped up their game and audiences back home will be more delighted than ever at the wonderful shows they will put on.  In fact, many people who are in a position to know, including John Lennon and George Harrison, have gone on record as saying that this is when they reached their musical peak.  By this time they had really gelled as a musical unit.  They were, after all, practicing their craft something like 6 hours EVERY DAY.

Paul McCartney's take is that, each time they arrived home from Hamburg or some other high pressure tour, they would take some time off and their first shows after the layoff the shows would be a bit raggedy. 

Photographs from this time show that they are becoming much less concerned with piled high hair-dos.  No doubt this is the influence of seeing the German students who would hang out at their shows and nearly all had hair in the French style, brushed forward and ungreasy.  (The wet head is dead.)  I think this is really interesting.  New styles are not usually adopted in a "big bang" way, but slowly the old styles seem to have less appeal and the new ones more until one day, almost without conscious effort, the change has taken place.

Astrid Kircherr says that shortly before they left, George had come to her and asked her to style his hair like Stewart's, whose hair she had already been doing for some time.  So, of John, Paul, George and Ringo, little unassuming George was the first to see the potential in what would come to be known as "The Beatle Haircut".

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Playing Out the 1961 String

June 30, 1961

The Beatles are finishing up their trip to Hamburg and surely are looking forward to a bit of a rest back home in Liddypool.

I really like one of the reminiscences of Tony Sheridan about the dorm style living they have been enduring for the last couple of months.

"We all lived in an attic... There were bunk beds, and I remember John used to have the top bunk.  He'd crash around when he got up because he could never see a thing without his glasses.  Once he started banging around, we all had to get up...  Our day began at about two in the afternoon when we would swagger down to the Seaman's Mission for a meal.  I don't know why, but we always used to have the same meal all the time, everywhere - tea and cornflakes."

Hamburg Seaman's Mission

The Hamburg harbor and the mission is less than 1/4 mile from  the Reeperbahn so they didn't have far to go.

Yeah, that kind of life would be getting old about now, and a couple of weeks at home with loved ones close at hand would be pretty attractive.  (Even if she was a little tightly wound, Aunt Mimi always made sure John had proper meals to eat.)  But fear not, fans.  The siren song of rock and  roll would be too strong to resist and pretty soon the Beatles would be up to their old tricks in the hotbed of music that was Liverpool.  And with a some real recordings "in the can" things would soon be taking a dramatic turn for the better.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pay Stubs and Platters

June 23, 1961

Tony Sheridan and the Beatles
The Beatles played their usual gig last night, wrapping up at 3 am, and headed to Polydor Studios to finish their recording session with Bert Kaempfert.  Then they head back to the Top Ten for their week's pay envelope and tonight's show.

Today is one of the few dates that can be known with certainty during the Beatles' second Hamburg trip.  Here is a link to some amazing images.  The first shows the signatures of the Beatles on a payment receipt for the Top Ten club dated in the European fashion at the top.  (How'd you like to have THAT in your Beatles memorabilia collection!)  Scroll down for some photographic images of the band on stage at the Top Ten.  Note Paul's brand new Hofner violin-shaped bass in the second and fourth image.  George is still playing his Futurama.  Also note that Stu Sutcliffe is still with them and they are sporting two bass guitarists!  Sam Leach testifies that Stuart's bass guitar was left unplugged during this time and was only for show.

Tony Sheridan remembers that they wanted to use Paul's bass on the recording sessions and worried for a while about how to break the news to Stuart.  Stuart solved their problem for them by graciously announcing that he was going to pursue an artistic career full time with his scholarship at the Hamburg College of Art.

If you've got a few minutes, watch this wonderful video of Sam, one of the most important behind the scenes Beatle people.  It was made at the Grapes Public House, across Matthew Street from the site of the Cavern in Liverpool.  In it he reminisces about working with them in the early '60s.  It's not difficult to see why there might have been some bad blood between Stuart and Paul.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Visit to Polydor

June 22, 1961

Today and tomorrow are huge red letter days for the Beatles in Hamburg.  Today the Beatles open their professional recording careers as a backing band for Tony Sheridan.  They record for the Polydor label at sessions supervised by Bert Kaempfert.  Polydor is the German subsidiary of the magnificent British EMI Corporation with the world's leading recording facility at Abbey Road in London.  The Beatles are certainly  impressed.

One of the songs they record is a version of "My Bonnie".  (If you are a Beatle fan you've certainly come across that recording somewhere.  It is famous in  Beatle lore, as we will see in a couple of months.)  They record "The Saints"  (aka "When the Saints Come Marching In").  Both of these are traditional songs which get rocked up today.

Also, they record a Tony Sheridan original called "Why" and an instrumental song written by George Harrison and John Lennon (unique in Beatles history) called "Cry For a Shadow".  (It is a clever parody in the style of  Cliff Richard and the Shadows, get it?)  George Harrison plays a very creditable lead on his Selmer Futurama.  Thankfully, Mr Kaempfert even allows the Beatles to record a song with John Lennon on vocals.  The material recorded at this time forms the backbone for the CD "Savage Young Beatles" which is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the Beatles development at this point in time.

Just close your eyes for a moment, listen to this and imagine you are there.  Ain't that perfection?!

Paul McCartney holds down the bottom end and is still a relative newcomer to it.  Remember, he only got his first bass guitar a few days ago.  He was born to play bass.
There are some pics of the pressings that resulted from this session here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The First Hofner

June, 1961

No doubt Paul has received his special order by now, a left handed Hofner Bass, model number 500/1.  Any guitarist can easily imagine how excited he must have been, especially since he is moving up from a broken down cheap electric guitar, strung with piano strings.

He ordered the new Hofner, a real professional bass, if an inexpensive one, from a Hamburg music store (likely a Steinway Music Store, situated near the Reeperbahn) with some of his earnings.  This guitar is an early incarnation of the violin shaped bass that he eventually will make famous, but is not the one that most Beatle fans will instantly recognize.  This earlier version of this guitar has both pick-ups mounted close together near the neck.  (This is the guitar that is later stolen during the filming of Let It Be at the tail end of the Beatles story.  The missing bass inspires the plot line dramatized in Paul's My Brave Face video.)

Now, two of the iconic instruments are in the hands of the Beatles.  John has his beloved Rickenbacker 325 and Paul his Beatle bass.  We have to wait a little while yet for George to hook up with his famous Gretsch Duo-Jet, but can't you just feel the momentum building?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

DieGrosse Freiheit (The Great Freedom)

June, 1961

The Beatles are fully enjoying their trip to Hamburg.  The most important contribution that Hamburg makes to the their development is the sense of unfettered liberty they experience there.  For some people, unbridled freedom can be destructive, resulting in nothing more than self indulgence and personal ruin.  (And it must be admitted that John Lennon is coming close to that cliff edge.)  For others, it can open up a world of possibilities and creativity.

The stories of John's scandalous behavior on this trip are myriad.  Mostly, they seem exaggerated by time and retelling.  Still there must often be a kernel of truth in the stories.  Taking a drunken leak in a dark corner in the early morning darkness as a group of nuns passes by becomes urination off a balcony onto the sisters passing by on the street below.  Did he really wear a toilet seat around his neck on stage, or is that the 500th retelling of an incident with John "praying to the porcelain god" after a long night of alcoholic indulgence?  Human memory being what it is, no one can say for sure at this remove.

Still, there is some physical evidence of his rebellious nature, as demonstrated by this photograph.  John, on a dare, has taken a stroll to obtain the Hamburg morning paper and left his pants in his room.  Anything for a laugh, eh John.  In later times, Brian Epstein (whom the Beatles have not yet met) would be horrified to hear of the existence of this picture and would demand that Lennon try to get it back.

John Lennon goes for an early morning stroll
Somehow,  this picture presages the coming of Monte Python's Flying Circus, doesn't it?  (See 1:52 of this clip.  Thank you, Mother England!)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Crazy Cool

May, 1961

The wonderful sound coming out of the Beatles amplifiers are only part of their magic.  As mentioned before, another big contribution is made by that almost undefinable something we call "charisma".  And the Beatles are getting and projecting pure doses of it every night in Hamburg.

What is happening was reinforced for me by the news this week of Gil Scott Heron, a troubled musician and poet who died this week after decades of drug and alcohol abuse.  I saw him him the mid-60s at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit.  I feel like what I saw there is in a direct line of descent from what the Beatles and their Hamburg friends were starting in 1961.  I remember being completely mesmerized by his reading of his most famous poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised".  It was not about an esthetically attractive work of art, but as if we were being shaken awake from a pleasant hypnotic dream.  As with the Beatles, his work was about much more than just providing window dressing to be gazed at and admired.  It was meant to be a wake-up call and consciousness raiser.  Of course, John Lennon and company were light years away from the political message of Gil Scott Heron, but there was undeniably an element of "Shock of the New" in the Beatles music, a shock that demanded full attention from  its audience.  That shock distinguishes all great art, whether Joyce's "Ulysses", Picasso's "Guernica" or the Beatle's "I Saw Her Standing There".

The Beatles performances, while I doubt they knew what they were doing at the time, is not about white shirts, narrow ties and choreographed moves on stage.  But about eating, smoking, joking, just having fun with the audience by whatever means necessary.  Another influential band sharing the Hamburg spotlight with the Beatles was the Remo Four.  Like the Beatles, their onstage antics can, also be said to be in equal parts musical performance and theatrical event.  Imagine their cover of this song that really says it all so well, "But I Was Cool". 

Incidentally, that line of cultural descent leads further on to Alice Cooper, glam rock, poetry slams and a million other aspects of modern musical expression.  Pretty cool!