The Beatles Live 1957-1963
In the next six posts I will be looking at the Beatles creativity in terms of the six phases identified in Learning from Learning…With The Beatles. In keeping with the social construction of Popular Music I will tell these stories through six Top Tens of Beatles songs. Consequently, as with many of the posts on this blog, there is an accompanying post with videos on a Beatles YouTube Album; specific videos are linked to from the paragraph headers. The first period discussed here is about how John, Paul, George and Ringo became The Beatles and looks at The Beatles Live 1957-1963. This is the same period as that identified by Malcolm Gladwell when The Beatles were unknown unknowns, or Outliers, and in the process of self-creation.
The pre-Fab Four were feral and provincial, outlawed themselves to Germany and worked in Hamburg’s red light district to make live music for significant periods in the early sixties. Bob Spitz in The Beatles Biography identifies the Litherland Hall Concert in Liverpool on December 27 1960, after the Beatles had returned from Hamburg in Wild Ones black leather, as the point at which they became legends in their own backyard. Nice short film about Litherland made by their manager of the time Allan Williams, which captures this confusion about their provenance. But even legends started small and the craft collective known as The Beatles started as The Quarrymen.
The most significant date in early Beatles history is the Woolton Fete on July 6th 1957 when John Lennon and his rabble-rousing mate Pete Shotton took their band The Quarrymen to play live skiffle on the back of a truck. The sometimes cutesy but always solid tunesmith McCartney was impressed by the band and the dangerously quixotic Lennon. On that day or the next (disputed), he joined the band and eventually replaced Shotton as Lennon’s conspirator in chief. Lennon and McCartney were to become the most successful songwriting partnership of the twentieth century, 80 of the 250 most covered songs of all time are written by them. Robert M Pirsig in Lila argues that change comes out of the interplay of both risky dynamic quality and safe static quality and Lennon and McCartney had that yin and yang. The film Nowhere Boy captures this dynamic well in the intimate scenes between Lennon and his “little friend” as Lennon’s Aunt Mimi called McCartney.
Paul had “passed the audition” to play with The Quarrymen in July 1957 (still going strong) by playing Eddie Cochran’s 20 Flight Rock, from the seminal RnR film The Girl Cant Help It, for John. In February 1958 Paul brought along his friend George Harrison, whom John originally dismissed as being both too young and too small to be a Quarryman. George, like Paul, had to play some good rock n roll really well to show John his worth, the instrumental Raunchy; suddenly he was in the band. Here are the grown up Beatles in retirement playing it easy with Raunchy. The fact that John Paul and George naturally developed three-part harmonies, which reflected doo-wop, and which were to propel Beatles songs out of the transistor radios that every sixties kid owned helped.
Three quarters of The Beatles were in place by Spring 1958 and they soon recorded Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day in Percy Phillips living room studio. It sounds like the fifties; tentative, earnest, faraway and lost. It was played in an easy skiffle style, the play-in-a-day entry-level music of the fifties that turned thousands of kids into proto-musicians. However it was rock n roll that took the restlessness of fifties youth and put their frustrated energy into the music. The Beatles played a lot of rock n roll, especially in Hamburg for their very first fans; the Art School exi’s. They learnt how to “make a show,” entertain, amuse and to give it up with Rock n Roll Music. The Beatles version of Chuck Berry’s great 1956 song Roll Over Beethoven was selected by Daniel Levitin as one of the 6 tracks that sum up rock music in This is Your Brain on Music.
Blue Moon / That’s Alright Mimi
But most of all they were inspired by Elvis Presley. John went crazy when he first heard Elvis and drove his Aunt Mimi, with whom he lived on Menlove Avenue, where his mother Julia would eventually be run over, sufficiently bonkers to buy him a guitar. Great scene in Nowhere Boy showing them buying Lennon’s first guitar. What would ultimately differentiate the group The Beatles from their Beat Boom peers was their song writing. The scene in Nowhere Boy pretty accurately (thousands of boys bedrooms unwittingly recreated this scene for years) captures Paul (dismissively introduced by Aunt Mimi) teaching John the chords to Rodgers and Hart’s Blue Moon, in the rock n roll adaptation doo-wopped to the top by the Marcels, but made famous by Elvis.
Solid-Gold Red-Hot Rockabilly
Still they weren’t quite The Beatles yet. They started with low-cost skiffle, added no-cost doo-wop, street-corner barber shop harmonies from urban America, but now they were in the some-cost territory of being a rock n roll band and needed real money. In 1959 Lennon had started Art School and had fallen under the creative influence of Stuart Sutcliffe (Eduardo Paolozzi’s favourite pupil) and Royston Ellis (the Paperback Writer of later years). Moving out of Mimi’s house Lennon lived in a squat with them which was exposed as part of the Sunday People’s Beatnik Horror “silly season” series in August 1960.
After Stu Sutcliffe (the James Dean of the group) joined them in January 1960 the Quarrymen evolved into the late great Johnny and the Moondogs and then the Silver Beatles. Finally in August 1960 they became The Beatles adding Pete Best as drummer later that month. The Beatles foetus was complete. They were improving musically, were cooler stylistically, but it was getting hard to play live. Best’s mum Mona ran the Casbah Club giving them some guaranteed dates in Liverpool. They were ready to be a real live rock n roll band and manager Allan Williams sent them off to Hamburg.
Pete Best helped The Beatles become a driving live club band, as good as any other at the time, with five good-looking lads to attract the girls, some wit and sarcasm from Lennon, bonhomie and cheer from McCartney and his driving drum sound to drown out the shake of the dancers, the rattle of the glasses and the rolling of customers. Rockabilly was a good way to impose yourself on an audience and they learnt a lot of music that helped them manage the roudy customers they played for.
Rock n Roll Band; Made in Hamburg
Thanks in part to Best in Hamburg they became the raving rock n roll band that was to triumph in Litherland five months later. However George was so young on their first visit, seventeen, that he was expelled by the immigration authorities, which almost broke up The Beatles. But late 1960 was the critical time when they were both a great little rock n roll band and arty beatniks and who were adopted by German exi’s, Hamburg art students. Lennon was attracted by genius and this arty period help extend and clarify their group identity. Sutcliffe’s gift was to make them attractive to the exi’s; Astrid Kircherr gave them Beatle cuts and with Klaus Vormann, who was to draw Revolver, developed their androgynous image. Their musical range was also unusually broad as they also covered girl group songs as well, creating a complex identity that would eventually mature fully in 1964/65 as their songwriting became more reflective.
As well as developing their uniquely sixties beatnik rocker (“mocker”) identity The Beatles were so successful musically in Germany from 1960-62 that they were asked to back English singer Tony Sheridan, the top star in Hamburg at the time, on a Polydor recording session for the great Bert Kampfert, a major German producer and songwriter. This wasn’t so sweet a session overall but The Beatles did get to sign their first recording contract and even record their first composition the Harrison-Lennon instrumental Cry Me Shadow, ironically partly in tribute to The Shadows, which opens this lovely little film; full of wonderfully relevant black and white photos from Hamburg; But Hamburg did improve The Beatles as a rock n roll band. As showmen apprentices they played six times a week often for 10 hours per day. They put in the 10,000 hours of live performance that made them the craftsmen of popular music we came to know and love. They had to draw on skiffle, show tunes, rock n roll, rockabilly, country, pop hits, easy listening lounge, burlesque, instrumentals, military tunes, pub songs, and Goon-like humour; everything they could find to fill the time. If you knew the name they looked up the number. This was the origin of their musically diverse 1968 White Album. One of their live classics, Hippy Hippy Shake, later a hit for the Swinging Blue Jeans whom The Beatles really liked. This was recorded in Hamburg but is fitted to the film of Some Other Guy made in the Cavern in 1962 by Granada TV from Manchester. Word was spreading;
The Beatles, big fish in two little pools in 1961, were now both treading water professionally whilst improving in various ways as a band. Signed by Brian Epstein to NEMS in 1961, because a fan asked for a copy of the Kampfert recordings at his shop, Epstien looked to get them a UK recording contract through auditions, first at Decca, and then at EMI. Fatefully at EMI George Martin asked for Pete Best to be replaced as drummer after his poor performance on Love Me Do. The band believed they were on the verge of becoming EMI recording artists and so sacked their live drummer, bringing in the “best drummer in Liverpool” instead. The musical instrument known as The Beatles was now complete. So let us offer a tribute to Pete Best, who helped The Beatles become a live rock n roll band, but who was not to be part of their fabulous recording history (see next post) with Besame Mucho; both on the Decca Audition (his best recorded performance) and live. Besame Mucho resonates with Pete Best.
By 1963 Ringo Starr was in, they had a recording contract, they had a post-beatnik, post rock n roll, softer identity. They were the Mop Tops, a brand, a set of attitudes and behaviours that could be easily copied; or consumed. They had a recording contract and a hit record but they still played 246 live performances in 1963. Their opening tune live was I Saw Her Sanding There sometimes a jam lasting up to 10 minutes, but now the opening track to their first album which George Martin had designed to mimic their live show. And this was the first of a series of transitions as the Beatles moved from being a live rock n roll band to a pop singles band
I have tried to pick a Top Ten of songs here that reflects the Beatles journey from schoolboy Quarrymen to red-hot live combo direct from Germany. Then I asked a friend, Deni Lavender, who heard The Beatles live perhaps 100 times between 1962 and 1964 to pick ten tracks that summed up the Beatles live and she said two intriguing things. Firstly, why only ten? Secondly her list of the 13 songs she would really want The Beatles to play live isn’t obvious at all. Here is a great show by The Beatles by someone who listened to them at the time; I Got a Woman, Young Blood, A Shot of Rhythm & Blues, Sure to Fall (In Love With You), Johnny B Goode & Roll Over Beethoven!, Besame Mucho, That’ll be the Day, Memphis Tennessee, Lucille, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, I Forgot To Remember To Forget, Love Me Do… I have created a Beatles YouTube Album Post called Beatles Live! Show London 1962 which includes videos of these songs and more.