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.