How did the idea for Mersey Beat first originate?
origins could well had resulted from my passion for producing magazines.
I was a science-fiction fan, member of the Liverpool Science Fiction
Society and produced my own fanzine called Biped. When I joined
the Junior School of Art I was given a little attic office with
a typewriter and Gestetner machine and I produced a duplicated magazine
called Premier. When I began at the Liverpool College of Art I was
also given access to a Gestener and produced a duplicated magazine
I simply called Jazz. John, Stuart, Rod and I often dropped round
to Liverpool University where you could get cheap beer at the student's
bar. I was asked to produce their annual Pantosphinx magazine and,
as I wasn't an actual University Student, they suggested I just
title myself assistant editor. Then, a friend who ran a little record
store in a small room above the Jacaranda club approached me and
said that he'd been asked to produce a magazine for the local music
store Frank Hessy, but didn't know what to do. I said I was willing
to work on it. I designed the covers, layouts, wrote copy and liaised
with James E. James, the printers. Frank Hessy (Hesselberg), wanted
the magazine to be called Frank Comments, I pointed out that it
was an uncommercial name, but he was paying the bill. Working on
the magazine drew me more into the local music scene. There was
a lot of jazz around - but that was on the surface, the type of
music that received the publicity. No one seemed aware of the burgeoning
rock 'n' roll scene. I'd been to dances at Wilson Hall, had been
pointed in the direction of Elvis Presley by a fellow student John
Ashcroft and had got to love Buddy Holly by listening to his records
on a friend's Dansette player.
When John, Stuart, Rod and I decided to call ourselves the Dissenters
and make Liverpool famous - John was to do it with his music, Stuart
and Rod with their painting and me with my writing. I suppose the
idea for Mersey Beat germinated around this time.
I met Virginia at the Jacaranda. She was 16 at the time and this
was when the Beatles first played there in May 1960. I discussed
with her my thirst for producing magazines and had designed one
called Storyville/52nd Street. This was a small pocket sized concept
similar in size and appearance to Frank Comments. I'd designed a
dummy copy and showed it to some friends at the Jacaranda. At the
time one of the local clubs was called the Storyville (later to
become the Iron Door) and Sam Leach, who was a Jacaranda regular,
was friendly with the Storyville owners. I asked him if he could
approach them to see if they'd be interested in financing it. He
said he would finance it himself. I worked out the costing and he
arranged to meet me and Virginia. He didn't turn up. He made other
arrangements to meet us, but didn't turn up at those meetings either.
In the meantime I was developing ideas. The Liverpool Echo refused
to let the local rock and roll groups advertise on the front page
classifieds under 'Rock and Roll', they had to be classified as
'Jazz.' I was becoming more and more interested in the local rock
scene, particularly with the Beatles because of my close association
with John and Stu. It seemed to me that a 'What's On In Music' publication
would be more appropriate and I worked out that it would be better
placed in a newspaper format, particularly as, working with James
E. James, the printers, I was getting more experience in the field
and felt a small newspaper would be more economic than a small but
full colour glossy magazine. My interest in jazz had also waned
by this time and talking with Adrian Barber and Casey Jones of Cass
& the Cassanovas, and mixing with Rory Storm, Johnny Guitar
and Ringo Starr at the Jacaranda, I was beginning to forge friendships
with these local artists and fancied promoting their cause. In fact,
I actually wrote a letter to the Daily Mail newspaper saying that
what was happening in Liverpool was unique, it was like New Orleans
at the turn of the century, but with rock and roll instead of jazz.
Obviously, I didn't get a reply.
Some months had passed. Dick Matthews, a friend of Leach's approached
me and said that he had felt that Sam had let me down and he'd like
to help. He had a friend Jim Anderson, who would be willing to finance
Virginia and me. I told Dick that I'd advanced the idea and wanted
to do a local 'what's on' newspaper. He arranged a meeting with
Jim, a very nice man, a local civil servant and I explained the
concept. He agreed to finance me and asked how much I needed. I'd
no experience of business, but had some knowledge of James E. James,
so I said £50 and he agreed.
Jim found us a tiny office above David Land the wine merchants
at 81a Renshaw Street and obtained a desk, chairs and a typewriter
for us. Virginia gave up her job and began full time work on £2.10/-
per week. I took no money at all as I was living on a Senior City
Art Scholarship which I'd won.
As we progressed we were always beset by financial problems, but
persevered. I remembered the poem John had shown me in Ye Cracke
and asked him to write me a special piece on the Beatles. He gave
me a couple of scraps of paper in the Jacaranda with his efforts
and he didn't seem all that confident that I'd like it. John always
seemed to be a bit hesitant and protective about reaction to his
work. I loved the story which told of a man coming down on a flaming
pie and naming them Beatles. It had no title, so I dubbed it 'Being
A Short Diversion on the Dubious Origins of Beatles, Translated
from the John Lennon.'
Q: As you mentioned, you met Virginia, your future wife, at
the Jacaranda around the time the idea for Mersey Beat was taking
shape. What role did she play in helping to get the publication
off the ground?
Beat would never have happened but for Virginia. She was the unsung
heroine of the Mersey scene. I first met her at the Jacaranda in
1960 when she was 16 and the Beatles were playing below in the coal
hole. She had faith in my ideas and encouraged me to continue with
the dream. When we managed to borrow £50 off Jim Anderson,
Virginia gave up her job to work full time as the only member of
staff. We were in primitive conditions in an attic office, there
wasn't much money to pay her, but she dedicated herself to the paper.
John, George and Paul used to drop into the office and help her
out. She knew her music, knew all the groups, came up with ideas,
and persevered when things were tough - and that was almost on a
weekly basis, with virtually no money, having to chase up people
to pay for their adverts and so on. She befriended artists such
as Beryl Marsden and Cilla Black and she had the strength of character
to stand up to bullying by Brian Epstein. The national newspapers
referred to Virginia and me as 'Mr. & Mrs. Mersey Beat.' I may
have had the profile, interviewing all the groups, designing and
distributing the paper, organizing the photo sessions, but Virginia
had the less publicized task of organization and keeping the paper
together, dealing with the accountant, arguing with people who didn't
pay for their adverts and such.
Q: I wasn't aware until recently that Brian Epstein wrote a column
for Mersey Beat. How did that come about?
Brian Epstein's first record review column appeared in issue No
3 of Mersey Beat on August 3 1961. It was headed 'Stop the World
- and listen to everything in it. Brian Epstein of Nems.' Because,
in his autobiography 'A Cellarful of Noise', Epstein came up with
the story about Raymond Jones coming into his shop on October 28
1961, this has caused a dilemma for writers trying to explain it.
His reviews appeared months before the Raymond Jones incident. As
it turns out, Raymond Jones does exist, he was just one of several
people, including a lot of girls, who asked about the Beatles record
in Nems. There are probably people who came into Nems asking for
the record before Jones did, but their names either weren't taken
down, or Brian just picked one of the names to include in his book.
The story of this record covered the entire front page of issue
No. 2 of Mersey Beat on July 20 1961, the issue which Brian Epstein
ordered 12 dozen copies of.
As Paul McCartney pointed out in his autobiography 'Many Years
from Now': "As Brian Epstein's autobiography 'A Cellarful of
Noise' was ghosted for him by Derek Taylor at the height of Beatlemania,
it cannot be trusted on matters of detail. The account in the book
about Brian being intrigued when three people in two days came into
his record shop and asked for 'My Bonnie' by the Beatles, causing
him to set out to find this elusive record by an unknown German
group, is a good story - but it is not true.
"Brian knew perfectly well who the Beatles were - they were
on the front page of the second issue of Mersey Beat, the local
music paper. Brian sold twelve dozen copies of this issue, so many
that he invited the editor, Bill Harry, into his office for a drink
to discuss why it was selling so well and to ask if he could write
a record review column for it. He is unlikely to have missed the
'Beatles sign recording contract' banner headline, reporting their
session with Tony Sheridan for Bert Kaempfert."
Admittedly, Brian did state in print that it was me who he phoned
to arrange for him to go down to the Cavern to see the Beatles for
the first time. Why, aware of the Beatles through Mersey Beat, did
he not acknowledge the fact in his book? I'm baffled. Philip Norman
states that Brian didn't like to apportion credit for anything to
anyone but himself. There is a certain degree of truth in this.
The Raymond Jones story is a good punchy 'anecdotal' tale to introduce
the book. Yes, without Mersey Beat, Brian would probably have not
known or become interested in the Beatles.
Back to the dilemma of writers who always put the Jones story as
if it was a fact. The only relevance to Raymond Jones in the Beatles
story would be if it were true that Brian hadn't heard of the Beatles
until the lad asked for the record. As this isn't the fact, what
can writers do? They can ignore the factual Mersey Beat story outright
or they can make out that although Brian wrote for Mersey Beat,
although his Nems adverts appeared on the same pages as major Beatles
articles, he didn't actually read the paper or notice their photograph
on the front covers, which is totally ridiculous.
Brian wanted to write for Mersey Beat because he saw the potential
of the paper which was selling such large quantities in its store
- and even had fans queuing up waiting for new issues to be delivered.
Q: 'What's The Story Behind 'Beatcomber.'
there would be just John and myself sitting together and having
a drink in Ye Cracke. One day I said to him that I'd heard he wrote
poetry and said I'd like to see some of it. It had obviously got
around that he liked writing, as in the case of his 'Daily Howl'
and perhaps that's where I'd heard it from. Initially, he denied
it. I've a feeling he didn't think writing poetry was the thing
a tough guy should do. I persevered and, strangely enough, he pulled
a piece of paper from his pocket and showed it to me. Yes, he actually
had a poem folded up in his trouser pocket.
That was the poem that went:
Owl George ee be a farmer's lad
With mucklekak and cow
Ee be the son of 'is old Dad
But why I don't know how.
Ee tak a fork and bale the hay
And stacking-stock he stock
And lived his loif from day to day
Dressed in a sweaty sock
One day maybe he marry be
To Nellie Nack the Lass
And we shall see what we shall see
A-fucking in the grass
Our Nellie be a gal so fine
All dimpled wart and blue
She herds the pigs, the rotten swine
It mak me wanna spew"
Spemhaps perchance ee'll be a man
But now I will unfurl
Owl George is out of the frying pan
'Cos ee's a little girl
I liked it, was amused by it and pleased that he wasn't copying
the Beat poets of San Fransisco, who seemed all the rage. He was
writing in a style true to his English heritage. He seemed relieved
to discover that I liked it, as if he was vulnerable to criticism.
I was aware of John's influences. At the Junior Art School, my
mate Les Chadwick (who took all the photos for Mersey Beat under
the name Peter Kaye) wrote me a piece for another magazine I was
editing and he called it 'The One-Legged Meat Ball.' Together with
some other friends at the school we'd put stories on the notice
board by the 'Natty Nut Society.' It was the time of the Goons -
and John was very influenced by them. He also listened to Stanley
Unwin and his Fractured English on the radio. I liked the nonsense
stories of Edward Leacock and the humorous column by Beachcomber
in the Daily Express newspaper. So, basically, this was the sort
of wacky humour that we'd grown up with at the time.
While Virginia and I were planning Mersey Beat I asked John to
write a history of the group in his own inimitable style. He handed
me two scraps of paper in the Jacaranda. The way he handed the paper
to me was furtively, as if he wasn't confident about what he'd written.
Of course, I loved it and decided to print it without altering
it one bit. It didn't have any title, so I decided to call it 'Being
a Short Diversion on the Origins of Beatles, Translated from the
I suspected John had believed I would consider the piece rubbish
and wouldn't use it, but I put it on page 2 of the very first issue
and he was thrilled, particularly since I hadn't altered it in any
way. He came up to the office one day with a huge bundle of papers.
There were stories, poems, drawings, an amazing collection of work,
virtually everything he'd ever written. I reckoned there were around
250 items. I particularly remembered the satirical items about the
current politicians such as Harold MacMillan.
John pressed the bundle into my hands and said they were mine to
do whatever I wanted with (effectively passing over the rights to
all those works to me). He was obviously thirsty to see more of
his work in print.
I decided to use the items separately as a regular column and,
instead of using John's name, I created the pseudonym Beatcomber,
a pun on the humorous Daily Express Beachcomber column. Incidentally,
many of the newspaper columns in those days were published under
a pseudonym rather than the writer's own name.
Everyone guessed they were by John, it was obvious that they were
the product of the same author of 'dubious origins.'
Sadly, due to Mersey Beat expanding, we moved from the attic office
into larger premises a floor below and during the change, all of
John's writings were lost. We had to tell him about it one night
at the Blue Angel and he cried on Virginia's shoulder.
When he approached me for some Beatcomber items for his first book,
I also offered to try and trace further material he'd lost. I was
aware of the Daily Howl and decided to track it down. I eventually
discovered that our former friend Rod Murray was living near the
Rialto Cinema and suspected that he may have retained some of John's
possessions which John had left behind in the Gambier Terrace flat.
When I saw Rod he said that he did have a copy of the Daily Howl
- but that John had left him in the lurch and not paid his share
of the rent. Millie Sutcliffe had found that both Stuart and John
hadn't paid their share to Rod, so she paid Stuart's wack. I told
Rod I'd see Brian Epstein and get him to pay what was owed. I told
Brian that Rod had the book, explained the debt owed and he thanked
me and said he'd get the book for John.
I'd assumed he had, but I'm not entirely sure because many years
later Rod sold a copy of the Daily Howl at auction for around £16,000
- and good on him! Did Rod have two copies, or didn't Epstein follow-up
and obtain the copy for John? It's something I'll have to ask Rod.