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How did the idea for Mersey Beat first originate?

Click to enlargeThe 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?

Mersey Beat OnlineMersey 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.'

Click to enlargeOften 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 John Lennon.'

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.


In Part 2 of the interview, Bill Harry discusses Brian Epstein's discovery of the Beatles, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and more! If you would like to receive an e-mail notification when the publication date for Part 2 of the interview is announced, click here to sign up for the message board (your information will never be shared with any third parties).

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